Longing to Know (Meek)

Meek, Esther Lightcap.  Longing to Know.

(This review is from the audiobook version.)

This book is wonderful, but I would not approach it as a philosophical account of knowledge. It is almost like a meditation on the knowing act. It is best seen as asking one to know from a different angle.

Main idea: What is knowledge? Knowledge is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality. With this definition she upholds the traditional view of knowledge as correspondence and justified, true belief.  Such views, necessary as they are, are inadequate.  Applied strictly, very little of our knowing would count as knowledge, and that would exclude most bodily acts of knowing. On the other hand, coherence models, while purporting to embrace the bodily dimension of knowledge, often fail to provide any knowledge.  Esther Lightcap Meek goes beyond both models with her vision of integrating clues into a larger pattern.

We can look at the problem another way.  We all know of those “Aha!” moments in our knowing.   That is when we make the leap from the unknown to the known (a problem that Plato’s Meno could not solve). For Meek, that seems to be knowledge.  My only quibble is that much of our knowing does not have this “Aha!” moment, but the idea itself is sound.

Knowing

Thesis: the act of knowing as traditionally understood implies success.  It means I have achieved truth by meeting certain conditions for knowledge and/or certainty.  

Week has a colorful way of summarizing Western philosophy: if Western civilization was born in Athens, then skepticism was its cradle. We tend to think of Plato as promoting eternal truths.  He certainly did.  The way he did so, however, presupposed skepticism.  If knowledge is justified, true belief, then in order for someone to know something, he or she has to prove he knows it.  As Meek says, “We don’t simply want to be sure, we also demand to be shown.”

As Week has elegantly said in other works, knowing is a “coming-to” reality. It involves the “Aha!” moment. It has a “from-to” structure.  This “from-to” is the subsidiary or particulars.. We move from the subsidiary to the focal.  She illustrates this by one of those “3-D” pictures where you have to look at it for a while before the image appears.

Meek suggests this form of knowing is “embodied.” That is true for many aspects of knowing, but it is hard to see (no pun intended) how knowing God would be embodied.

Knowledge as Vector

“Knowing vectors us through the world and also vectors us through time.  Call it ‘being on the way to knowing.’ Knowing is a longing, a leaning into the world.”  Indeed, earlier she says, “If a statement is a dot, the act of knowing is a vector to and throw the dot.”  We can also see the dots as subsidiaries.  The act of knowing gets us through the subsidiaries and into the focus.

Integration > coherence

Coherence models of truth cohere like flour in a measuring cup.  They might fit, but they tell you nothing about knowledge.  Integration is like flour as it is in rising yeast.  Integration is knowledge transformed.

Doubting the Doubts

Going through doubts is akin to going through a batting slump in baseball.  The goal is to get beyond the subsidiaries and back to the focal. Many, but perhaps not all, of our doubts are when we get stuck in the subsidiaries and never see the picture. I do not mean this in a cliched sort of way. For one reason or another, a doubter is not able to focus on the key picture.  

As some reviewers noted, Meek’s comments on “certainty” are a bit unguarded.  I agree with her that a God’s-eye certainty is neither possible nor desirable.  Indeed, as one Reformed author cogently argued, it is also illegitimate. That kind of certainty is not what God promised his children.  On the other hand, a finite sort of certainty is certainly commendable.  With that aside, this is a wonderful, even healing type of book.

The Science of God (McGrath)

McGrath, Alister. The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology.

Alister McGrath defends the idea that creation (or “nature”) is a real entity that discloses knowledge in such a way that shapes the knowledge it discloses. In other words, ontology structures epistemology without negating the latter. Echoing Thomas Torrance, we know “kata physin.”

He begins with his own life-journey from studying chemistry at Oxford to studying theology–and becoming a Christian along the way.

Contra Hellenism and Orientalism, since creation is contingent, the real can be found by acknowledging nature’s contingency (McGrath 51). For Greeks, to get to the real was to get beyond appearances and nature. For the creation-tradition, however, the opposite was the case. The natural order possesses its own goodness and rationality.

Creation (or “nature”) finds itself within an interlocking network of divine and human rationality (62). Following the Hebrew writers, particularly Job (38ff), creation is linked with the idea of God’s “ordering.” This ordering is not the result of God’s being under necessity, but is rather contingent.

McGrath defends natural theology but in a new way. Natural theology isn’t looking at a squirrel and then deducing God’s simplicity. Rather, it begins with revelation and sees the natural world as disclosing real truths.

The book then moves from “nature” to “theory.” McGrath criticizes communitarian approaches like Lindbeck and to an extent, Barth. He also interacts with John Milbank and Alasdair McIntyre.

This book is a summary and popularization of his larger Scientific Theology. It succeeds in channeling key aspects of Thomas Torrance (on epistemology and ontology) while leaving Karl Barth behind

Revamping Natural Theology

Let’s explore a different angle. I went over some of my notes on Torrance, Einstein, Polanyi, and the like.

With the natural theology guys, we agree that there is a rationality in nature that points towards God and to which even the unbeliever has access.

Against the natural theology guys, this rationality is more along the lines of post-Newtonian models and not simply Aristotle’s causality.

With the Van Tillians I agree that without God this rationality would be impossible, as it would no longer be contingent.

Against the Van Tillians, it is better to pursue this as seeing a God-given rationality within nature rather than bizarre transcendental models.

Bottom line: the extreme Van Tillians are wrong to reject natural theology as proposed above. The classical theists, although correct on the doctrine of God, need to move beyond Plato and Aristotle.

A Little Manual for Knowing (Meek)

Meek, Esther Lightcap.  A Little Manual for Knowing. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Meek resists the claim that knowledge is reducible to information. If knowledge is just about information, then “how do we come to know in the first place?”  We must have some knowledge to begin the “knowledge journey,” but if knowledge is just information, then we can’t even begin.  This is why Plato reduced knowledge to remembrance (particularly of past lives).

A consequence of the “knowledge-as-fact” approach is that it divides the knower.  It assumes one can detach himself from the act of knowing.

Covenant epistemology: the knower “pledges himself to the yet-to-be-known, the way a groom pledges himself to a bride.”  This is quite different from when the postmodernist attacks rationalism.  The postmodernist quite correctly says that all knowing is done from a finite standpoint, with the implication that knowledge is relativised.  The covenantal knower, by contrast, sees knowledge in an almost eschatological light. In Meek’s words, knowledge is a “pilgrimage” in which “we journey together.”  “All knowing is a coming-to-know.”

Polanyi: “subsidiary-focal integration”

This book is unique among Christian epistemology texts in that she gives exercises at the end of each chapter.

Knowledge as love implies that knowing ← → Being go hand in hand. Reality is person-like, not an amalgamation of bits of information.  Meek argues, by contrast, that reality is a gift.  When I look at a thing, on first glance we see it as it is.  But in a Creator universe, the thing is also “what-it-promises-to-be” and “what-it-ought-to-be.”

Promise language then is covenant language. This is tied with the notion of “reality as gift.

Her thesis is “we love in order to know.” I don’t think this works as a global thesis, but in terms of some knowledge-situations it is probably accurate. This type of loving is an “active receptivity.”

There are some good thoughts on “cultivating wonder” as a mental habit.  In her nice phrase, “it is a trained readiness to be astounded.”

Covenantal knowledge involves a “pledge,” which is the “I do” of love. In this knowledge “we give ourselves to be known,” to pledge to the Other’s “being.” This is what Torrance and Polanyi mean by knowing “kataphysically,” according to the nature of the thing known.  The thing presses its reality upon your mind. Granted, this makes more sense in terms of religion, philosophy, and politics than it would in looking at a blank wall.

If these things about knowledge are true, then knowing also involves a “maturity in love.” This is where knowing’s “interpersonal” dimension is clearly seen.  We need other persons to help us mature and be the person’s we are.

She has a neat section on “The Void.”  The void doesn’t have to be evil.  It can just be the realization of non-being.  It can be how healing can begin.  It’s sort of like having the law preached to you.  She has a neat diagram on the four dimensions of humanness.

              Holy

Self ——- ——–         ————–   Situation

                      Void

In a moving line, Meek writes, “In the Void, we must cry out in hope for the gracious deliverance and inbreaking of new being.  This is a key act of inviting the real.”  In another diagram, she calls this “the knowing event.” “The Holy is the gracious possibility of new being.”  It is where “epiphany” happens.

Now we are going to add persons to the picture

Meek gives good guidelines for cultivating the real:  choose wise guides, for one.  Beginners don’t know a lot about philosophy.  I personally wasted years on dead-ends.  You must also “place yourself where reality is likely to show up.”

Knowledge as Indwelling

Now Meek moves into the territory of the Hungarian chemist Michael Polanyi and his idea of “Subsidiary-Focal Integration” (SFI). We will go back to Plato’s Meno.  If knowledge is simply about transfer of propositions, that which we do not know, then we can never cross the Platonic chasm between Knowledge and Becoming, since we are in the realm of Becoming.

Perhaps we are getting too far afield.  Meek’s point is that knowledge also involves a “subsidiary” dimension that happens below the surface of the focal. Perhaps we can reframe the above-mentioned Platonic problem this way:  let’s take Heidegger’s question on being.  What is being?  To ask that question presupposes some knowledge of being, otherwise we couldn’t use the word “is.”  Let’s say a toddler is learning.  He needs sentences to learn, yet he doesn’t know what a sentence is, so how can he learn?

“All knowledge and knowing has a ‘from-to’ structure.”  It is not “a linear relation.” Think in terms of clues and patterns.  There is no linear connection, yet your mind is already seeing the evidence for patterns.  It then makes a proleptic jump, which Meek calls “integration.” It’s like playing “Wheel of Fortune.”  Her conclusion: “As we indwell the subsidiaries, we creatively integrate to a sustained focal pattern…We actively shape clues to the pattern; and we passively submit to the pattern.”

And then comes the moment of epiphany: [it] feels very much like a gracious gift from outside us.”  Indeed, “embedded in epiphany is the shift from active to passive, from giving to receiving.  It feels like a shift from knowing to being known.”

Knowing as shalom: we know shalom when the tension in the knowing encounter is brought to a proper resolution.  It is the joy we experience in seeing the “natural fittingness” of something that was put together.  She has some interesting–but only tantalizing–suggestions on shalom and healing.  That definitely needs to be developed.

Catchy sayings:

* Covenantal knowledge is commitment, not curiosity.
* Knowing is inviting the real, welcoming the yet-to-be-known.

* We seek to indwell and be indwelt by the yet-to-be-known.
* Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from in order to see transformatively beyond.

* IFM = indeterminate future manifestation.”  Any good integrative pattern promises future unfoldings of dimensions and horizons.

* Insight isn’t informational–it is transformational.

Conclusion

This is a dynamic little book.  Not all of her arguments are sufficiently developed, but I think she knows that, as she intends this to be a gateway to her larger works on epistemology.  This book succeeds where so many epistemology texts from post-evangelicals have failed.  Too often we hear that rationality ought to be “Embodied” or “situated.”  Fair enough.  Few really say what that means.  In other words, granted that knowledge is embodied, what would mechanism or the knowing act look like?  Meek actually develops an answer.

It’s also fashionable, especially among Reformed, to advocate a “coventanal epistemology.”  That usually means quoting Bible verses such as “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  That’s true, but by itself it tells me nothing of how knowledge works.  If I preface a trigonometry problem with “Fear of the Lord,” I still have to work the problem and the answer will be the same as if I didn’t say “The Fear of the Lord.” Meek’s approach reshapes the covenant question in terms of knowledge as gift, pledge, promise, etc.  Which is actually what a covenant is.

Darwin: Origin of Species (Review)

favored

At best Darwin can explain the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of a new species. Survival, not arrival.

If this book were written today, it wouldn’t have caused such an uproar. Some of that is we are familiar with his thesis. But not all of Darwin’s book is controversial. Parts are quite technical and of interest only to bird specialists and such.

The mechanism of evolution is natural selection. Interestingly, Darwin is still using causal language, in noting that there must be some “efficient cause” (Darwin 9). Any scientist today wold be laughed out of the room if he said that.

Key point: “A much more important rule….is that, at whatever period of life a peculiarity first appeared, it tends to reappear in the offspring at a corresponding age” (11).

Darwin gives a running commentary on different changes in microevolution. Most of this is true, but illustrates a point left unsaid: all of these variations are evidence of design (by humans), not of random selection.

Darwin admits no one has come up with a good definition of species (24). This point shouldn’t be overlooked. If species aren’t locked in stone, then we need to acknowledge the possibility that a critter could be “80% dog.” Or even more alarming, 75% human.

He admits that varieties cannot be distinguished from species except only if we have the intermediate linksonly if we have the intermediate links (31). This is the Holy Grail of Darwinism.

Darwin comes back to this point at the end of the book. By the end of the book he is quite clear that our classifications aren’t arbitrary, but follow a logical and natural order. I agree with him, and while this isn’t a contradiction per se, it does show that Darwin comes down to some sort of unity and not pure randomness. I hesitate to use the word “design,” but you see where I am going.

Thesis: Natural selection is the preservation of favorable individual differences and the destruction of those which are injurious (40).

Darwin admits his term “Natural Selection” is misleading. Evolution posits a blind, unguided process and natural selection implies an active guider. And Nature’s evolution takes place over “long periods of time” (49). This is key because it will create huge problems with the Cambrian fossil record.

Darwin follows up with objections raised. Most of these are quite uninteresting and some are literally arguments against certain bird specialists. He does make one interesting comment in passing (chapter 7)

“Lastly, more than one writer has asked, why have some animals had their mental powers more highly developed than others, as such would be advantageous to all” (106)?

This anticipates Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” If I don’t have a mind or soul, nor have I freedom, this means that everything I do is causally determined by events, circumstances, and neurons firing. This means either (a) beliefs themselves are physical states (remember, on Darwin’s reading there is no soul) or (b) are reduced to physical states. If that’s the case, in order to survive I don’t need to believe in (x), I just need to react vis-a-vis my nervous system. If naturalism is true, then why should I believe it to be true?

Of course Darwin doesn’t mention any of that, nor do his critics. I think the reality and presupposition of the soul was still dominant that there was no point. Later in the chapter Darwin mentions of a certain species’s “Powers of movement” (115). I find it interesting that he is still using Aristotelian language.

Chapter 8: Instinct

Most of this chapter is a reflection on the relationship between instinct and habit. Nothing major hinges on it. The only possible problem arises when we get to categories like “dispositions” and the like. These aren’t physical states. They are mental states.

Darwin is very honest about the conditions under which his theory would be falsified: where is the evidence? And did that evidence arise gradually or at once? To be fair, he offers different models that explain the evidence (or lack thereof). That is a perfectly legitimate move in science, and he ends the chapter with admittedly beautiful prose. But let’s pay attention to what he just did: this isn’t merely using the scientific method and testing a hypothesis. We are now substituting a model to explain away the lack of evidence.

Conclusion

I don’t know if the whole book is worth reading. And regardless of my criticisms of Darwin, I strongly urge fellow theists to read this book. If you read it you will be better informed on evolution than most federal judges and ACLU lawyers. But you probably don’t need to read the whole book. Definitely read chapters 1-2, 4, 6, 10, and the final few pages

Introduction to Philosophy (Geisler and Feinberg)

This is a systematic philosophy text.  Like a systematic theology, it explains and evaluates the loci of philosophy.  It is probably the best intro text on the market, at least from a Christian perspective.

A good philosophical system will achieve three things: (1) internal consistency, (2) external comprehensiveness, and (3) correspondence (Geisler and Feinberg, 72).

The authors do a fine job rebutting the pietistic charge that studying philosophy violates Colossians 2:8.  For one, Paul is warning against false knowledge, not all knowledge.  Moreover, the definite article could actually indicate a specific teaching at Colosse (i.e., most likely gnostic angel-worship).  Even more, one cannot beware of false philosophy unless he is first aware of it (73).  And though Geisler does not mention it, these same pietists themselves give a logos about theos and have no problem with using Aristotelian concepts like being, quality, quantity, and motion.

The first locus the authors cover is knowledge and the various options with justifying belief.  My only concern is that I wish they had spent more time on foundationalism.

What is Knowledge?

Problems with skepticism:

1) Skepticism is rationally inconsistent.  Assertions that we cannot know anything are themselves claims of knowledge (94ff).

2) Skepticism is practically inconsistent: skeptics trust their sense perceptions when they cross the road.

Foundationalism

Foundationalism is the view that there is a structure of knowledge “whose foundations, though they support all the rest, are themselves in need of no support” (152). We have directly justified beliefs “and they are topped with indirectly justified beliefs.”

In response to criticisms, the foundationalist maintains his position does not end in an infinite regress. It is possible that there are immediately grounded propositions.

Coherentism

Coherentism is one alternative to foundationalism.  Geisler notes a distinction between coherentist theories of truth and coherentist justification for truth (161). The coherentist justification asserts that there are no basic beliefs, only webs of belief. 

What is Reality?

Is reality One or Many?  Geisler does a fine job explaining the power of Parmenides’ argument for monism (168). It looks like this:

1) Reality is either one or many.

2) If reality is many, then then many things must differ from each other.

3) But there are only two ways things can differ: either by being (something) or by non-being (nothing).

4) However, two (or more) things cannot differ by nothing, for to differ by nothing means not to differ at all.

5) Neither can things differ by being (or something), because being is the only thing that everything has in common, and things cannot differ in the very respect in which they are all the same.

6) Therefore, things cannot differ at all; everything is one.

It’s clear that the problem is his univocal use of the term “being.”  The solution can’t be an equivocal use of the word “being,” for then our knowledge of reality is now suspect.  The only solution, and one Aristotle and Aquinas would later formulate, is an analogical use of being.

The pluralist options are as follows:

Atomism: “Things Differ by Absolute Non-Being” (170ff).

Platonism: Things differ by relative non-being

Aristotle: Things Differ in their Being (Which is Simple)

Aquinas: Things Differ in their Being (which is composed of Form and Matter)

Trinity, One, and Many

Can the Trinity solve the problem of the One and Many?  Short answer: No. The Trinity does not address Parmenides’ concern.  Parmenides wants to know how things can differ in their being.  The Trinity, however, only seeks to posit plurality in the persons, precisely not in the being.

God and the Ultimate

We must not confuse “belief in” with “belief that” (269). I do not need a reason for faith in God.  It is entirely legitimate, though, to stress reasons for belief that God exist.

Some Thoughts on Deism

The Deists’ line that miracles are a violation of natural law no longer works.  Science today is as likely to speak of “models” and “maps” than laws (277).  Moreover, natural physical law does not actually “cause” anything.  It merely explains it.

Problems with Panentheism and Finite Godism

Panentheism cannot claim an infinite god with “finite poles.” It does not make sense to speak of a contingent and necessary God.  Even more problematic, “can God actualize his own potential?” This problem is even more damaging for finite godism.  As Geisler notes, “A finite god needs a cause.”  That new cause is now God (or at least has a better claim to be God).

Paul Tillich’s Symbolic Language

It does not do to say that God is the ground of ultimate Being and that language about God is symbolic. Such a person believes there is at least non-symbolic entity, being.

Analogical God-Talk

1) There is only a basis for “analogy when there is an intrinsic causal relation” (314). For example, as Geisler notes, hot water has an extrinsic relation to the hardness in the boiled egg, but it has an intrinsic relation to the heat in the egg.

2) The effect does not need to resemble the instrumental cause, only the principal efficient cause (315).

3) Likewise, the effect need not resemble the material cause, only the efficient one.

4) Terms like “being” are univocally defined, but analogically applied (317).

What is Good or Right?

Kantianism: will it to be a universalizable law.  Existentialists have asked why should we prioritize the universal over the particular?

Utilitarianism: greatest good for the greatest number.  There are numerous problems with this claim. Only God can be utilitarian, since only he has the foresight to know which actions will be the best for the greatest number (393).  There is another problem: the utilitarian subtly analyzes results in terms of ‘the Good,” which means results cannot be the deciding factor.  Perhaps the greatest practical problem: how long-range must the results be in order for them to be good?  If it is only short-range, then this justifies a number of evils.  Too long a range, on the other hand, makes it worthless.

Classical theistic ethics: the Good is self-evident. The main difficulty with the classical view is whether it can overcome the “is-ought” fallacy. There are several lines of response.  “If ‘ought’ is a basic category that cannot be reduced to ‘is’ or anything else, then one must understand it intuitionally, since there is no way to break it down further” (383). We still haven’t justified natural law ethics.  We have, however, provided a source about what we believe.  We should point out, though, that concepts like “The Good” cannot be analyzed in terms of a higher concept.

Conclusion

This book was a joy to read.  Geisler provided us with an accessible, yet rigorous text for the introductory to mid-level college student.  

Christianity and Idealism (Van Til)

Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity and Idealism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955.

Originally a collection of articles, this is actually a fascinating account of the final days of Anglo-American Hegelianism. When Van Til (and by extension, his interlocutors) say “idealism,” they do not mean it like Berkeley and others did, where the world is a product of the human mind. Not even Hegel meant that. Rather, for this kind of idealism, the Absolute is that which is either beyond all particulars or contains all particulars.

A note on terminology: a key concept for idealism is the concrete universal. If for Plato universals existed in some unattainable heaven, and where for Aristotle universals exist in the particular, for the later Idealists the universal contains the particulars.

For men like FH Bradley, reality is beyond the appearances. Reality is unreal to the degree that it is not comprehensible. This calls to mind the old Hegelian dictum: the real is the rational and the rational is the real.

Bernard Bonsanqet makes a similar argument: pluralism destroys knowledge (Van Til, 19). Unity must be basic to difference. I think this is correct and Van Til himself acknowledges its proximity to theism. Without a unity, everything is in flux. This means that the universe must be timeless. Now we are getting into dangerous waters. We are only a short step away from denying the passage of time altogether, as McTaggart later did.

As good as this sounds, Van Til highlights its weakness. It makes God and man correlative of one another. Being and nothing are correlative. All ends up as becoming. Yes, it’s pantheism. Another consequence is that there is no doctrine of creation, since particularity has always been there.

Van Til says the ontological Trinity is the true concrete universal. I think there is something to that. There is unity and particularity in the Trinity, but it does not function the same way as earlier Idealist models did. The unity for the Idealists served to ground the particulars. The difficulty here is that the particulars in the Trinity (i.e., the persons) are not functioning in the same way as idealist particulars are. Of course, Van Til never makes these claims, but it is an idea I have had for years when I read Van Tillians on the ontological trinity.

The book is worth getting to see how Van Til reacted to the last of the British Hegelians.

Augustine’s Confessions

For the most part I will try to avoid some of the more memorable scenes. You probably already know them.

Augustine begins by lamenting his learning of Virgil. Why should he weep over Dido when his teachers did not know enough for him to weep over his own soul? This might seem that Augustine is condemning classical learning, and he probably thought he was, but Augustine’s own life mirrors Aeneas’s, so there is that.

Like Aeneas, Augustine arrives in Carthage. And like Aeneas, Augustine succumbs to its pleasures. He failed to understand that true love was a calm “communion of minds” (2.2). Rather, he sought only to be in love with love.

We also get a profound meditation on the proper ordering of goods. There isn’t just one “flat” good thing in our lives. There is a gradation of goods. We sin by desiring lower goods at the expense of higher. This anticipates his later claim that evil is a lack and/or a perversion of the good.

In books three and four he meets a number of important people. He meets Cicero in a book, and Cicero teaches him to seek after higher things. Unfortunately, he also becomes a Manichee. From the Manichees he learned wrong ideas of God and evil. He thought substances must be physical, and so he could not imagine an immaterial substance (3.7).

He also met Faustus, the leader of the Manichees. Ironically, this would lead him out of Manicheanism. He was underwhelmed. Most importantly, he meets Ambrose in Italy, and in Ambrose’s rhetoric he sees that form = substance.

Although in book seven he was still struggling with Manicheanism, he found the Platonists’ books. This reoriented him to the possibility of immaterial substances. He now saw reality as a chain of being. Things are good, and the lower a good is, the more susceptible to corruption it is. This was a breakthrough. Evil couldn’t exist unless there was already a good for it to corrupt. Evil, therefore, is a lack.

Book 8 contains his famous conversion scene. It is dramatic psychology. You’ll have to read it. It also takes place in a garden. That is typology and very important.

Book 9 contains the baptisms of him, his son, Nebredius (I think), and Alypius.

Books 10-13 are extended meditations on memory, time, and creation.

In terms of reading and appreciating the Great Christian Tradition, this is the classic text with which to start.

Language is Sermonic: Richard Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric

Weaver, Richard M. Language is Sermonic.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

If, as Augustine said, “peace is the tranquility of order,” then for Richard Weaver “meaning is the stability of language.”  Weaver, the noted commenter on the Vanderbilt Agrarians, seeks in this collection of essays to unite logos and ethos, dialectic and rhetoric.  There is some overlap with his Ethics of Rhetoric, but there are new essays that are worth reading.

Language is sermonic in the sense that it raises man beyond the dialectic.  Reason does not tell you what to do (nor does it give you the power).  That belongs to rhetoric.  The negative converse is also true: decays in language often reflect decays in society (though it is not always clear which comes first).  Therefore, as Weaver urges us to see, “speech is the vehicle of order” (Weaver 34). Speech is anchored to ontological referents: truth, being, goodness. When these referents are lost, we get pragmatism.  

There is, then, a hierarchy of terms that move us to action (84). This is a proper ordering of goods (side note: the Augustinian parallels are obvious.  Therefore, if we will be responsible rhetors, we must use the strongest method.  These are the “topics” that Aristotle gave to us: genus, fundamental principles, similitude, cause and effect, circumstance.  Arguing by way of genus is the strongest method of argument.  It defines terms according to the essence of things. Fundamental principles and similitude are necessary and inevitable, but they are not that strong.  Cause and effect is good, but it never transcends the realm of phenomena.  

At this point the review could go in a number of directions.  Sometimes with Weaver the best thing to do is to give a list of quotes.  I might still do that.  In the meantime, we will see Weaver’s “strong essentialism” in rhetoric.  Weaver, like Adam in the garden, believed that things have essences and names tell us those essences, or in any case, they get very close.

The natural bridge from dialectic to rhetoric is the use of “strong terms” or “god terms.”  These control the discourse.  As Weaver notes, “A term is a policy of motion,” and “motion is part of the soul’s essence” (73). When we educate a soul, we begin a process of “rightly affecting its motion.”  This is still at the moment of dialectic (or logic).  Rhetoric now “moves the soul with a movement which cannot be finally justified logically. It can only be valued analogically with reference to some supreme image” (80).

The use of god-terms and essences is what Weaver calls “an aristocracy of notions.” The man whose god-terms revolve around “God, being, truth,” etc., is much more noble than the one whose terms revolve around pleasure, media, and democracy.

Dialectic tells one what the facts and truth are.  Rhetoric orders those facts.  It is axiological (141). It merges what is the case with what ought to be the case.

Democracy of the Lowest Common Denominator

If Weaver’s vision does not obtain for modern society, then we are doomed to what he elsewhere called “a democracy of matter.”  This brings up an uncomfortable point in rhetoric: about what exactly do we want men to be articulate?  If we lose “ontological referents” (being, truth), then we are left with advertising, and no one wants that. Weaver’s solution, although one to which he only points, is to be like Adam: connect names and essences (192ff).

 “It is very hard after a century of progressivism to get people to admit the possibility of objective Truth, but here again we are face to face with our dilemma: if truth does not exist, there is nothing to teach; if it does exist, how can we conceive of teaching anything else” (195).

Volume 2 of the Syntopicon (Adler)

Mortimer Adler regularly claimed that it was impossible to be educated before the age of 40.  If true, I would also suggest it is difficult to be educated without working through something like his Syntopicon.  The setup is the same as the earlier volume.    There is a ten page essay, topical indexes, and a recommended reading list.  This review will only outline his key topics, the various positions taken, and how the great thinkers interacted with their predecessors, if time permits.

Man

Man is the only subject where the knower and the object known are the same (Adler 1).  Indeed, “the human intellect is able to examine itself.”

The Western tradition is divided on man’s essence.  The standard (and correct) view is that man differs from animals because he is rational.  His use of speech is a consequence of this rationality.  It is not the main difference.  If this is true, then there must be some distinction between reason and sense (5).

Mind

The mind is capable of self-knowledge. This is the difference between sense and intellect.  Senses do not seem to be aware of themselves (172). 

Following Aristotle, we see that if “the soul is the principle of life and all vital activities, so mind is the subordinate principle of knowledge” (173).  And the act of intellect moves as such:

1) conception
2) judgment
3) reasoning.

Monarchy

Adler wisely separates the principle of absolute government from monarchy, since republics and democracies can be as absolutist (205). Monarchy as an idea underwent a transformation in the Middle Ages. It did resemble an absolute system in one sense by giving power to one man, yet it placed supremacy of law in the hands of the people (207).  The only problem with this idea is that given its birth in feudalism, it did not last long in the modern age.

Hegel suggests a robust constitutional monarchy.  In this view the state is more of a corporation. The advantage of this view is that it is quite flexible with modernity and market forces  It doesn’t have any of the disadvantages that plagued medieval models.  On the other hand, it’s not always clear what Hegel is saying.

One and the Many

In line with Aristotle, unity is the first property of being.  All contraries are reducible to things like being/nonbeing, one/many, etc.  Moreover, unity belongs to the individual natural substance.  Man is a substance.  He is not made of other substances.  Machines, though, are.

This is somewhat different from Plato.  Plato’s view had problems.  The idea of the one is also one idea among many.  Plotinus corrected some of these problems.  For him, the one transcends being.  It also transcends intelligence, since knowing requires an object, which would introduce duality into the One.

Opposition

Opposites do not simply distinguish, they exclude.

Plato: Everything has one opposite.  This was his idea in Gorgias and Protagoras on the unity of virtue.  This also illustrates the numerous subdivisions in Western taxonomies.

Aristotle: made the distinction between correlative opposites (double, one-half) and contrary opposites (odd/even).

Hegel: Unites opposites by reconciling their differences.  Every finite phase of reality has its own contrary.  For example, being and nonbeing imply and exclude one another.  They are united in becoming.

Reasoning

The words “if” and “then” indicate that reason is a motion of the mind from one alternative to another.

Plotinus: any form of thinking signifies a weakness.  It introduces duality.  Higher intelligences, by contrast, know by intuition.  Later Christian thinkers didn’t accept this extreme a view, but they did borrow his idea on intuition and applied it to angelic intelligences.

All the praise I gave of volume one also applies to this volume.