Posts Tagged ‘metaphysics’

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

In chapter two Aristotle addresses an important objection to the project of metaphysics, that is, there is an infinite series of causes. By implication, metaphysics can never adequately arrive at any kind of first cause. Aristotle begins by noting that matter if traced back through its causes eventually reaches a beginning point, so does change, and so does the goal of things when traced forward. Neither last things nor middle things are causes of a series. Last things do not cause because nothing follows them. Middle things, though they cause last things, are dependent on that which comes before them. Without this primary thing there can be no cause.

Aristotle also considers that not all things are caused in a linear series like this. Some things “bend back” (46) for mutual causality so as air causes water so water causes air. In this process, one thing is destroyed and the other is generated, then again. However, that from which water and/or air originated in the first place cannot be destroyed as it is eternal. Not only backwards, it is also eternal in that all things are done for its sake. If there are infinite causes then there can be no “good” at which all things aim. Neither would mind, which acts for the sake of limited things, exist. The next part is quite technical, but from what I understand Aristotle argues that because an infinity of causes has no beginning and thus also no end then tracing the series is impossible to do with a finite mind. Indeed, an infinite mathematical series cannot be known. But this knowledge is not necessary to cognition. Cognition, which is knowledge of causes, would be impossible if the causes were infinite.

I doubt I’ve done Aristotle the grace of understanding him before writing this post. Nonetheless, from what I do understand, there are some important assumptions here underlying his metaphysical project. Aristotle rejects the idea of any existing infinity: “And it is not possible for any infinite thing to exist; otherwise, infinity would not be infinite” (47). To me this is both poetically and logically valid. A truly infinite infinity must extend beyond existence itself. My confusion is with Aristotle’s invocation of an eternal first cause from which and to which all things go. There is probably some important distinction between eternity and infinity in the Greek of which I’m unaware, but initially I see little difference between an infinite series of causes and an eternal first cause. If this first cause is eternal, the source of all, and thus unlike any other cause we know then how can we be sure that it does not consist in an infinity of other causes, those obviously not open to human cognition!

Another assumption is that the source provides the end. But I wonder if it can be said that if the source produces something other to itself then is not that otherness, even if it is an otherness in the minimal sense, that there is something other than the eternal first cause, already the source of another end? Is it quite possible that this first cause is swallowed up in a teleology completely foreign to itself? It could be said that if this is the first cause then nothing foreign to itself could be its teleology because all that exists comes from it. However, this understanding of cause is very linear and assumes that nothing new can come about. That the caused thing is not the cause itself is the beginning of a last thing that differs from its first thing.

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This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

Having arrived at the aim of metaphysics, that is, to ascertain the principles and causes from which the world comes, Aristotle spends a few chapters recalling how philosophy before him has approached the question. He begins chapter three by pointing the reader to the four kinds of causes he discussed in detail in Physics. The actual text does not give much information because Aristotle doesn’t have anything to add to what he has written elsewhere. The translator’s introduction to the chapter is helpful though: a thing causes another thing in four ways, “by providing the form that it realizes, by being the matter from which it is made, by being the source of the process that leads to its coming to be or by being that for the sake of which the thing is produced” (11). These may not be four kinds of cause as much as they are four ways of explaining cause.

The early philosophers ascribed cause to material things such as water, air, or fire. Some favoured a single principle while others ascribed cause to multiple, even infinite sources. But matter could not explain everything. Thus some went further and pointed to a mind or love/desire beyond matter as something that organised the world and/or gave it purpose. To explain the source of bad things, strife (which Aristotle does not really explain) was sometimes posited as a cause that worked in dialectic with love. However, many of these ideas were not adequately clarified by the philosophers and poets who suggested them, nor applied consistently in their thought.

In chapter five Aristotle recalls how the Pythagoreans with their love of number managed to see number as elementary for all things. One, in turn, was elementary for all number. Many philosophers were also monists (those that believed existence or reality is one). Aristotle distinguishes two monists, those who accepted a doctrine of movement and those who denied that change is possible. In chapter six he goes on to examine the origin of Plato’s Theory of Forms, that is, that there is a real world of abstract Forms of Ideas beyond that of perception. Aristotle sees Heraclitus’ scepticism towards the reliability of the senses and Socrates’ search for universals in his ethical philosophy as the key influences acting upon Plato’s thought here. In Plato’s philosophy, it is the Forms which are the causes or principles of things.

In chapter seven Aristotle contends that none of the many philosophers briefly surveyed went beyond the four causes he outlined in Physics. “[R]ather, all seem to be indistinctly grappling after these” (26). While most philosophers attributed cause to matter, only a few posited something extra-material like mind or love, which is the source of change. Aristotle maintains that none of them posited teleological causes, that is, the causes which give things their purpose.

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This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

The first chapter ended with Aristotle suggesting that “wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6, emphasis mine). Now, to understand what this particular knowledge is, Aristotle begins with the wise person. The wise person has knowledge that goes beyond particulars, has a knowledge which is not immediately available to all people, can teach this knowledge accurately, and chooses their knowledge for the sake of the knowledge itself rather than treating it as instrumental to some external goal. The wisest person is the one with the most general knowledge, that by which all other subject areas can be known. This is the discipline of metaphysics, which examines principles and causes.

Aristotle goes on to compare metaphysics with other sciences: “And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done” (8). The sciences are not undertaken for their own sakes but only insofar as they are instrumental to particular ends. We might learn more about bees in biology so we can better utilise them for their honey. Metaphysics, however, has no end external to it because its end is itself: “So it is clear that we seek [this knowledge] for no other use but rather, as we say, as a free man is for himself and not for another, so is this science the only one of the sciences that is free. For it alone exists for its own sake” (9). (Thus, though we might undertake a biological investigation for its own sake, I would imagine that Aristotle would point to a more general knowledge which this points to and as such must in some sense be undertaken for another end, even implicitly). In this sense metaphysics is “better” than the other sciences that aim at ends outside themselves. Moreover, metaphysics is the highest science because it aims at the highest knowledge, the knowledge of god: “For god is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a kind of principle” (10). That is not to say that god is necessarily the subject of this knowledge, only that god already has this particular knowledge at which metaphysics aims.

When reading the Nicomachean Ethics I noticed this preference of Aristotle’s for things that are for themselves and not instrumental to other things. He probably unpacks it a bit more elsewhere. I wonder though to what extent metaphysics is its own end. This is probably crude and a gross misunderstanding but if someone undertook a metaphysical investigation would not their end be different from their beginning? A metaphysical investigation is not static. It aims at the unknown beyond itself. I would add, who knows an end in the beginning? I might undertake a metaphysical investigation for its own sake, yet if metaphysics aims to share in god’s knowledge then isn’t it quite possible, whoever this god is, that it will arrive at a knowledge that it is indeed instrumental — there is something better beyond metaphysics at which it should aim. At least this is how I as a theologian would read Aristotle. Thus the cross and the resurrection of Christ look more than a little different from philosophical contemplation on principles and causes. Obviously this is no judgement on Aristotle but only a consideration for how he is appropriated.

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So it’s summer and I’ve taken a break from theology to dip my toes into some Aristotle. I just finished Nichomachean Ethics last week, and had some good thoughts here and there but nothing I really developed. As I’ve been reading the Metaphysics today I’ve had so many thoughts that I just had to share them. I’m working through the Penguin Classic edition with Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London, 1998 (Reprint 2004)). What’s extra awesome about that is there is not only a reasonably extensive introduction, as with most Penguins, but also a running commentary, at the beginning of every chapter, which are usually only a couple of pages each! This is much preferred to those fiddly endnotes in other books!

In Book Alpha, ch.1, Aristotle begins, “By nature, all men long to know” (4). He makes a connection between human desire for knowledge and their “delight in the senses.” From the senses he notes two distinct forms of knowing. Experience is a more implicit knowledge that works with someone’s memories to inform their actions in particular situations. Skill, however, arises from reflection on experience, generalising from particular situations to develop universal knowledge that is applicable in situations of that type. Aristotle uses the example of two sick people. The experienced person can heal one sick person and then use that experience to heal another. The skilled person generalises from this to infer that the particular way in which these people were healed can be applied to the category (species) human. This is universal knowledge because it applies to every kind of this situation, whereas experience as particular knowledge is focussed on the link between two particular situations. Experience remains important because it is the link between the theoretical knowledge peculiar to skill and the particular situations to which it is applied. Generally, because of the universality of skill’s knowledge, it is to be privileged over experience. It is concerned not just with the basic facts of things but their causes, reasons, purposes, etc. This is what Aristotle names wisdom, “knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6).

What I like about Aristotle’s arrival at a definition for wisdom is that there is an implied connection with the daily, banal human activities. Aristotle selects medicine as an example (his father was a doctor), but, moreover, throughout, the idea that a distinction between experience and skill, two things essential to the everyday of human activity, illuminates the nature of metaphysics is a beautiful affirmation of philosophy’s relevance to and source in the wider phenomenon of human culture.

That doesn’t stop me, however, from feeling that Aristotle has not laid all his cards on the table. As an introduction to the study of metaphysics, as we might know it, or first things, etc, Aristotle finds an analogy suitable to the assumption that there are universals higher than particulars, and these universals, the first things, are the proper subject matter of metaphysics. Although I love Aristotle’s emphasis on the importance of particulars, my complaint at this stage of the book (three pages in) would be that no skill or universal knowledge is truly universal. There will always be a particular exception to any such statement which identifies as universal. There will always be a way of getting behind it and exposing it for that which it is, a dirty particular, or a collection of particulars, which are in reality the same. So in saying that this medicine heals all people with this disease, it’s important to ask where the boundaries are between this medicine and not this medicine, human and not human (even if some blurry link between these two is no longer extant, this at least causes us to understand a universal as merely functional and not ontological), this disease and not with this disease. If this is the case, then the subject of metaphysics is not first things but in-between things.

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So, I totally found out a week ago today that I was supposed to start a dissertation already this semester (I had thought I was starting next semester, which seems silly now that I think of it, producing 17,000 words alongside another course in less than half a year!). In a flurry of flux I flicked together a proposal for the flesis: [Something like:] Divine freedom in the Trinitarian theologies of Barth and Moltmann. Hey, I have to start somewhere and I thought this would give me a somewhat introduction to important topics like the Trinity, divine freedom, Barth, and Moltmann!

In logically-consequential news, I enjoyed the company of Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship on a six hour bus ride today. You know you’re onto something good when that Oxford comma graces the subtitle. Letham approaches the history of Trinitarian theology from a Reformed perspective before addressing “Critical Issues”: Incarnation, worship and prayer, creation and missions, and persons. I made some notes of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Barth regarding the Trinity. Yay! Hopefully that’s a helpful place to start. Anyway, I think my favourite was Gregory Nazianzen (along with the Apostle John, the only writer in the Eastern church to be honoured with the title “the Theologian”). This is beautiful:

No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.

(Orations 40.41; cited in Letham, 164).

It reminds me of a quote by Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I way: “The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing in paganism only by being more unintelligible” (source).

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So tot’s been putting off writing for a while because laziness, etc. But yesterday (?) I finished John W. Cooper’s Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, in which Cooper spends the majority of the book detailing panentheism in Western philosophy and theology, touching on a few also voices somewhat outside that tradition, and providing a Reformed, classical theist critique in the final chapter. The outlines are good, though, and Cooper admits this, the response is very short and you probably need another book in itself to offer any substantial critique of panentheism.

What is panentheism? Firstly, you may know pantheism, from pan, all, and theos, God. There is one reality (monism) named God or All, but they’re the same thing. Secondly, you may know classical theism. There is God, who exists on his own terms, infinite and uncreated, and there is creation/finitude, which comes from him. I understand it as dualistic (this isn’t always a swear word) in that there is the reality of God and the reality of creation (and a good classical theist would decry the Platonic assigning of spirit, mind, etc to the reality of God; they are, indeed, created things). In contrast, panentheism, all-in-Godism, lets God have his creation, and eat it too. I understand it as monistic: There is the one reality of God and all things are in him, yet the two are ontologically distinct. God is not all things; he is more. All things are not God; they are much less. Yet they exist in the one reality, here God. Cooper does not employ monism and dualism as straightforwardly as I have done here. So if I have been bad, I invite you to smack my hand.

Famous panentheists include Hegel, Teilhard, Whitehead, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg (so Cooper argues), Ruether, McFague, and many more! It is yet too early for me to pick a team, but there are definitely some things about panentheism that appeal to me. One is this notion of “true infinity.” If God is infinite then a panentheist would argue that he cannot be infinite in contrast to the finite because this would bound the infinite and it would no longer be a true infinite. God as infinite therefore includes the finite within him. Cooper writes on Nicolas of Cusa: “Whereas classical theism protects the God-world distinction by opposing the infinite and finite, the absolute and relative, and other such antithetical qualities, Nicholas argues that the truly infinite must include both sides of these polarities” (Location 988-990). If in the beginning God is all there is, and this All is a powerful All, how can All create something whose existence is outside of it? Where did he place us if there was no outside in which to place us? Indeed, we are created ex nihilo, but we do not persist in nihilo because we would never start existing. We would need to be brought into the one reality who is God.

A problem arises, however. If God is both good and All, whence cometh evil? I think a panentheist could still maintain this if they distinguished between the actuality and possibility of evil in God. In himself God is not actually evil. Agreeable. Yet I tread carefully here. Is it possible that God can do evil? I cannot say. Yet evil comes with creation. It is possible for created things to do evil, so in a removed sense, God is somehow primordially related to evil through possibility. And if you’re in the Augustinian tradition you might quip that it’s a necessary possibility on account of creaturely freedom. In the scheme of panentheism, God creates out of nothing that for which evil is a possibility and he sustains it in the one reality which is himself.

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So, failing to grasp Heidegger last summer in Being and Time, I thought it could be helpful to read him backwards. I’m working my way through the Routledge edition of his Basic Writings, tackling him one lecture or essay at a time to see if the later Heidegger will familiarise me with and give some framework for reading his earlier stuff. I intend to summarise the material and, if possible when I’ve read a little more, offer some critical observations while trying not to embarrass myself.

What is metaphysics?

Heidegger consistently makes a point of seeing things in relation to the whole as well as their singularity. So the question, What is metaphysics?, like every metaphysical question, “always encompasses the whole range of metaphysical problems” (45). Additionally, a successful question will embrace the questioner as a necessary part of it.

All sciences “seek beings [all things that exist] themselves in order to make them objects of investigation and to determine their grounds” (46).¹ The sciences thus do not differ in importance but only style, so that, unlike mathematics, “To demand exactness in the study of history is to violate the idea of the specific rigor of the humanities” (46). Yet in dealing exclusively with beings, science neglects the nothing. Ironically, “Science wants to know nothing of nothing. But even so it is certain that when science tries to express its proper essence it calls upon the nothing for help” (47).

To ask, What is nothing?, however, already assumes nothing as a kind of being. Through the intellectual act of negation we can posit nothing, first positing a being and then negating it to non-being. Hedeigger goes further to argue that because negation presupposes the possibility of nothing, nothing must precede this intellectual act of negation (I negate therefore nothing…?). But we need to look to our encounter of nothing to define it. At the very least, we encounter it conceptually when we refer to it in language, assuming nothing to be “the complete negation of the totality of beings” (49). However, this has only defined nothing insofar as we encounter it intellectually.

We also encounter nothing through our moods. Boredom, for example, is our indifference to being confronted by the totality of beings. Conversely, anxiety reveals our encounter with the nothing:

Anxiety robs us of speech. Because beings as a whole slip away, so that just the nothing crowds round, in the face of anxiety all utterance of the “is” falls silent. That in the malaise of anxiety we often try to shatter the vacant stillness with compulsive talk only proves the presence of the nothing. … In the lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance we must say that that in the face of which and for which we were anxious was “properly”–nothing. Indeed: the nothing itself–as such–was there.


Yet in their encounter with nothing, beings are not annihiliated but “nihilated,” nothing “mak[ing] itself known … as a slipping away of the whole” (52). In so doing, nothing makes beings aware that they are not nothing; they are being. Nothing is thus not outside but constitutive of beings. Dasein, the being peculiar to human being, is in this sense transcendent, experiencing both being and non-being. Finally, our encounter with nothing is not solipsistic, dependent on our conscious experience of anxiety. Whenever beings open themselves up to us they do so by virtue of the nothing which we encounter through a general anxiety, however subtle.

Heidegger interprets metaphysics etymologically as “inquiry beyond or over beings, which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp” (55). Thus What is nothing? is a metaphysical question, concerned with that beyond being. In contrast to Hellenistic (ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing, nothing comes) and Christian (creatio ex nihilo) approaches to nothing as nonbeing, Heidegger argues that nothing is not the opposite of but, through Dasein’s transcendent existence, constitutive of being. Science thus needs to address the nothing as otherwise its investigation would be wanting.

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¹Heidegger’s use of “science” includes a number of disciplines going beyond biology, chemistry, physics, etc, so, for example, history is a science.

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