Good thing for the Scholastics…

A blogger named unBeguiled, with whom I have interacted before (e.g., concerning nothingness and existence), recently cited page 109 Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition:

“Angels, not being material, are pure forms or essences on Aquinas’s view, but even with them their essence needs to be combined with existence in order for them to be real, so that they too are composite.”

He then complained:

Putting aside whether parsing the nature of angels could ever be rational, how could anything be both “pure” but also a “composite”? Professor Feser’s muddled book is rife with this sort of linguistic deviance.

In response, one reader added:

Angels are pure “essences”? What does that even mean?

I can’t help thinking about Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr Strangelove and his obsession with Purity of Essence and the need to protect it by starting a nuclear war.

The passion people pour into meaningless phrases continues to amaze me.

Sigh. You’d think the Middle Ages had never happened. Good thing for those hoary old Scholastics they never had to face down such mighty objections.

Two is a pure form, a purely formal object, the essence of which is strictly independent of any material instantiation of it. Once “2” gets written on paper or typed onto a computer screen, however, it is “dematerialized” and thus becomes a composite of a ‘2’-essence and a materially specific existence. Every instance of “2” instantiates the essence of 2, but no composite instantiation of it in material existence exhausts the essence of two, since it can always be instantiated in its essential purity by some other material instance. That is, we can’t say this instance of 2 is “more truly” 2 than that instance of it; they both enjoy the identically pure essence of 2, but do so in materially, compositely specific ways as they happen to exist. Hence, while a written “2” enjoys a composite existence, it does so by virtue of the pure essence of 2 informing the matter involved.

The same goes, although even more vividly, for all formal operations, such as addition, subtraction, modus ponens, and so forth. Every instance of such formally pure operations enjoys a composite existence when it is dematerialized, but no physical set of instantiations can exhaust the essentially pure formality of any such operation. Hence, any physically instance of a formal operation partakes of a formally pure reality that exceeds the power of physical computation. Any instance of, say, addition could always be challenged and revised as but a covert case of “quaddition.” Kripke, Goodman, the grue problem, etc.

To get the full story, read James Ross’s “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” here


5 Responses

  1. In regards to the comment,

    “Angels are pure “essences”? What does that even mean?…The passion people pour into meaningless phrases continues to amaze me.”

    I think there is a hasty tendency for philosophers (particularly contemporary metaphysicians/phil. language) to pull the “non-sense” or “meaningless” card in regards to Scholastic thought. Sure it might be difficult to understand what the sentence “Angels are pure essence.” means. But this does NOT entitle one to hastily flag it as meaningless. The least a decenter can do is try to understand this sentence within the thought of St. Thomas and the scholastics…(i.e., the least one can do is turn to an evaluation of it via the history of Philosophy, try to make sense of it in context of the times).

  2. One of the biggest and oldest forms of sheer BIGOTRY in the history of western civilization is that aimed at the Medievals. Over the years, I’ve seen it take form as a mild form of racism. I think it has roots in the British-Continental divide: the moldy continentals deserve all the messes they’ve had, feels a certain kind of Anglo mind, since they were the heart of medieval civilization, the latter two words having been seen as a rank contradiction in terms for the past four ot five centuries. The same unwitting bigotry is at work in the post I added a few days ago, the quotation from Lakoff & Johnson.


  3. Unfortunately, explaining the immaterial nature of such abstract forms as an integer or a logical operation does nothing to explain angelic composition or Thomistic essence/existence composition in general. Unlike “2”, or modus ponens, an angel is a concrete individual substance, nonrepeatable, subject to accidents and accidental change, endowed with free will as well as with passivity with respect to (at least) either hellfire or the beatific vision. An angel is not the same kind of item as the ones you mention.

    Even those who recognize that the middle ages happened might affirm that rational thought has a component which is not the act of a corporeal organ, and yet take issue with Thomas’ essence/existence composition as an adequate explanation of the metaphysical structure of intellectual creatures. Augustine, St Alexander of Hales, St Bonaventure, John Pecham, Robert Kilwardby, Matthew of Aquasparta, Richard of Middleton, William de la Mare, Peter John Olivi, Vital du Fuor, and Gonsalvus of Spain, among many others, insisted in the Middle Ages that both the separated human soul and angels were composed of matter and form, while simultaneously recognizing their incorporeality.

    Explaining the immateriality of the angels according to Thomism by appealing to abstract formal entities puts you in danger of some serious metaphysical muddles. People may begin to suspect that you either assign all the attributes of individual substances to numbers and logical operations, or that you deny them to spirits. It is an open question whether a rigorous, broadly-Aristotelian metaphysics can coherently explain spiritual composition without matter, but this line of thought seems to me counterproductive.

    In any case, both for those deriding medieval philosophy and for those who wish to defend and appeal to it, recognizing that Aquinas is not the only game in town can be a real benefit.

    All that said, the comments on the post you’re responding to–and the post itself–really are astonishingly asinine.

  4. “One of the biggest and oldest forms of sheer BIGOTRY in the history of western civilization is that aimed at the Medievals.”

    What I don’t quite understand is how professional philosophers themselves, such as the notable Hugh brothers who are stark admirers of Aristotle as even evinced by several of their publications concerning the man & his philosophy, often cannot begin one of their books without lashing out at the Scholastics.

    Also, I don’t quite think that this has anything to do with elements discussed in Elliot B’s comments, but more so to do with the Church itself back then.

    For example, always at the heart of these criticisms are such things as the Galileo event (which the Hugh brothers never fail to bring up in their books) as well as the seeming ridiculous nature of scholasticism itself being unmoored to reality.

    To press the latter point, I remember one prominent professor from an ivy league university who was giving a talk on mediaeval literature having used as his example the infamous (though notoriously hilarious) Terry Jones “witch” dialogue from Monty Python as his parody version of scholasticism.

    Ofcourse, there is also this kind of opposition typically launched against scholasticism as well.

  5. We can safely say, I think, that no serious and responsible philosopher dismisses medieval philosophy out of hand as sheer nonsense. Typically, their complaints are that the philosophy was crippled by its subserviance to theology and to Christian faith in general. That’s a real criticism that needs to be met, but making that objection hardly commits one to maintaining that medieval philosophy was entirely senseless as a result. The simple fact of the matter is that there are plenty of atheists who agree that medieval philosophy was important and philosophically vigorous: in ethics alone, Philippa Foot and Terence Irwin have both claimed that Aquinas supplies the best Aristotelian moral philosophy that we have, and that it can be of as much service to atheists as to theists. Anthony Kenny has said similar things about Aquinas’ philosophy of mind. Bob Pasnau has said similar things about his metaphysics quite generally.

    There are good cultural reasons why some people never figure out that medieval philosophy was philosophically sophisticated and well worth consideration even for people who don’t share the Christian faith. Usually those reasons have to do with people never reading it, or only reading a few excerpts from the Summa Theologiae, and never reading them with the care that one would read, say, Aristotle. I’m not sure we should call it ‘bigotry,’ though certainly some dismissals of medieval thought have that air about them. Typically, I think, people simply assume that medieval philosophy was entirely about parading a bunch of weird abstract arguments in favor of the Church’s teaching on certain matters. Perhaps the first thing to do to unsettle that image of medieval philosophy is to point to its diversity and to the wide range of disagreements that the medievals had on issues that still immediately interest philosophers today. That’s certainly more likely to break through negative prejudices than talking about “pure essences” right off the bat.

    As for whether or not it’s “rational” to talk about angels, surely anybody who reads in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of mind realizes that one need not believe in the reality of something in order to speak rationally about it. Or what else should we say about zombies, twin earths, brains in vats, weird aliens who say “gavagai” with indeterminate reference, and so on? The idea of particular beings who are “pure essences” may be incoherent (though I’m not saying it is), but it’s certainly not “irrational” to talk about whether or not it is.

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