04 February 2016

Goldman Sachs

Two things:

1.  I'm currently reading John Kay's Other People's Money, which is a critical overview of different aspects of the global finance system, focused on financialization.  Check it out.  It's very informative.

2.  Remember the ground breaking for Goldman Sachs's new building in 2005?  It was so nice that Hillary Clinton was there to participate.  No doubt she just happened upon the party.  Or something.


03 February 2016

Ruminations on the Role of Liberalism in the Collapse of American Undergraduate Education

(The following essay is related to thoughts I expressed here.  Please note that this piece, like the previous one, is a sketch, not a manifesto, and that precision is proportionate to specificity.)


The curricula at liberal arts colleges in America fall along a spectrum between Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) and Amherst College. Students at TAC follow a strict program of intellectual formation, rooted in the Catholic tradition and committed to a specific philosophical outlook. Ideas are freely debated on campus, but the curriculum is fixed, and the intellectual profile of the successful graduate is clear from the outset. Amherst, on the other hand, prides itself on the openness of its curriculum. At Amherst, there are no common requirements, no universal prerequisites for graduation. Students are allowed to form themselves and to choose their coursework based on personal interests. Thus the graduate of Amherst is not directly formed by any supervisory program outside of his or her chosen major.

These two schools represent two ways of understanding the function of a college education. On the model employed at TAC, college education is a process of cultivating a particular set of intellectual abilities, in order to lead young people toward a certain kind of wisdom. Among alumni of the school, Marcus Berquist, a founder who long taught Aristotelian logic and metaphysics there, is held up as true sage—a master of philosophy who achieved wisdom by diligent study of the authorities (primarily St. Thomas and Aristotle). This wisdom is not the stuff of gnomic truisms or mystical paradoxes, but an active intellectual grasp of the nature and order of existence and the place of humanity within it. Students at the college aspire to that wisdom, and their coursework is explicitly directed toward its attainment.

The Amherst model of college education shares some common ground with the TAC model. Amherst, too, wants to form good intellectual habits in students and make them capable of higher academic pursuits, but Amherst suspends judgment about the nature of wisdom, the truth about humanity, and the requirements for sound judgment. Where TAC functions as a four-year apprenticeship in the guild of wisdom, Amherst is a free market of ideas, and the institutional structure is based on the hope that the forces of free discourse and curiosity will create an intellectual environment in which good ideas are discovered and shared—whatever "good" may mean.

The Amherst model of education has many problems. Like any structurally indifferent "marketplace of ideas", Amherst's success in forming students depends on the stability of an underlying intellectual consensus. That consensus determines the parameters of discussion, accepted standards of rationality, and a range of commonly held goals and metaphysical commitments (to truth, to moral goodness, to God, to the political order, etc.). Free discourse without any common foundation quickly degenerates into a war of all against all, concealed behind social niceties.

Today, the cultural and intellectual consensus that has sustained liberal institutions like Amherst for the past three centuries is dissolving. European Christianity, regardless of whether and how it was individually practiced, supplied the moral, legal, and metaphysical "common sense" in America which set the parameters of public discourse and gave us a range of universally held goals and metaphysical commitments. The dissolution of this consensus can be attributed to many causes, but one of the primary culprits is the widespread preference for liberal institutional structures, in which basic metaphysical commitments are not allowed to direct the course of discussion or set absolute priorities in the formation of students.

Liberal institutions are parasitic on metaphysically robust, non-liberal traditions, but the very survival and proliferation of liberal institutions tends to erode the non-liberal cultures and traditions that allow them to survive. This is because liberalism operates on a "least common denominator" model of public discourse, where the "neutral middle ground" favored by institutional structures consists of what the vast majority of people engaging in public discourse agree on. As time goes on, liberalism tends to dissolve divergent traditions into an ideological community defined by their least common denominator, and gradually (with the help of intellectual fads and the glorification of transgression, inevitable in any system of free discourse) the consensus erodes to nothing.

What is left at the end of this process is an empty ideology committed to nothing more than the procedural principles of liberalism itself: free discourse, mutual toleration, and the struggle for liberation. This final level of consensus within a liberal regime accelerates the destruction of the system by encouraging its members to fight to defend it. Like an autoimmune disorder, the ideologization of liberal procedural principles leads liberals to attack the vital non-liberal traditions within liberal society, attempting to exclude from public discourse all metaphysical commitments, all normative parameters for discussion, and all objective standards of rationality. And this development within liberalism (which seems to me to be structurally inevitable) transforms institutions designed to protect debate over important ideas into communities of guarded intellectual silence, in which everyone is an interested tourist, and no one is willing to make hard claims or defend a substantial cause.

The implications of this collapse within educational institutions are felt across the spectrum from TAC to Amherst. Today at the University of Chicago, the origin of the model on which TAC is based, students are still required to complete the famous "Common Core" curriculum, which was conceived by Robert Maynard Hutchins in the 1930s as a way of renewing public commitment to the European philosophical tradition (Hutchins himself, like his friend Mortimer Adler, was inclined toward Thomism) and directing undergraduate education toward the formation of good human beings and citizens. Hutchins's goal was noble, but the intellectual dissoluteness of the ambient culture gradually overwhelmed the commitments he wanted promoted in the program. By the time of his retirement in the 1950s the core curriculum was already being reduced, and today it remains more as a token of the University's commitment to broad philosophical formation than an actual guarantee of it.

At Yale College, the Directed Studies program was founded in the 1940s with the goal of establishing a common intellectual background against which undergraduates could discuss ideas in their upper-level coursework. The goal, again much like the goal of Thomas Aquinas College, was to cultivate a specific sort of wisdom, and to develop in students certain intellectual habits and habits of discourse which would promote rigorous thinking in the humanities, without being confined to the hyper-specialization of disciplinary guilds. Students were organized into small cohorts, each of which followed a set reading schedule filled with philosophical and literary classics.

When I passed through Directed Studies in 2007-08, the program still had some echoes of these goals. It still functioned as a common reference point for a significant minority of students, and gave its graduates a wide range of philosophical tools with which to approach problems and ideas in their later studies. But Directed Studies has departed fundamentally from its original conception. In the 1970s and 80s, as Yale fell under the sway of post-structuralism, the program ceased to be seen as an apprenticeship in interdisciplinary wisdom and the formation of an integral intellectual culture, and became yet another example of intellectual tourism. Directed Studies gave up the project of student formation, and now functions primarily as a collection of highly intensive survey courses in intellectual history. Students tend to finish the program, not grounded in a robust, critical philosophical vision, but disoriented and inclined toward relativism, having been subjected in a short period, without adequate guidance, to dozens of contradictory texts spanning thousands of years.

The University of Chicago and Yale College are just two examples of how the liberal dissolution of an intellectual common culture has affected the understanding of undergraduate education. Both cases originally tended toward to the "Thomas Aquinas College" end of the pedagogical spectrum, but were overwhelmed in time by the advancement of liberal principles. I suspect that the vast majority of American undergraduate programs tend toward Amherst, and even more aggressively. In large public universities it is very difficult to promote a common formation program, and most students are divided up into insular intellectual communities defined by discipline.

Within individual disciplines, the same phenomenon is repeating itself. Students who study literary theory are no longer presented with a comprehensive understanding of the nature of literary objects, but are given an array of contradictory perspectives, and trained to employ and discard each in turn, without preference. Faculty tend to be divided up into micro-specializations, leading to fragmented pedagogy and departmental curricula which are not founded on "classic texts" or formative reference points, but tend to produce more micro-specialists who lack an overarching grasp even of their own disciplines.

Fragmentation and cultural dissolution are pushing the system of higher education in America toward a crisis. The lack of institutional clarity about the meaning or purpose of undergraduate study (the sense, even, that the system no longer believes itself to have a genuine purpose) has transformed the bachelor's degree into an extremely expensive social ornament with rapidly diminishing value. It is only a matter of time before the education bubble bursts and the masses of aspirants to middle class prosperity currently being swindled by it realize that the existing system is based on a collection of bad promises, social myths, and echoes of an educational culture that no longer exists.

Meanwhile, within the system, the advancement of liberal ideology is taking its course. Hysterical outbursts over such absurd notions as "cultural appropriation" and "micro-aggression" are symptoms of institutional morbidity. More telling than student protests over these things is the extent to which institutions themselves consistently join in the hysteria and embrace it. Administrators see liberal ideology as the sole governing criterion for the intellectual formation they are trying to give students, so that it makes sense for them to congratulate aggrieved students who have found new ways to fight for "liberation" and "tolerance". Thomas Jefferson held that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing". Intellectual liberals, once they have exhausted the existing cultural supply of virtues and traditions against which to rebel, have to invent new oppressions to keep the spirit of liberty alive.

So far I have talked a good deal about the dangers and faults of Amherst-like schools. But Thomas Aquinas College's model of education is not without its dangers. The goal of educating for wisdom is lofty, and a good deal of institutional courage is necessary even to attempt it. The possibility of error looms large over such an undertaking. But the greater risk for programs like Thomas Aquinas is that, by training students in a specific tradition, with narrow goals, they leave graduates without adequate conversance in the alternative ideologies they will encounter in society at large. Lacking familiarity with other ways of thinking, alumni can end up intellectually isolated and incapable of understanding the opinions of others, or negotiating intellectual common ground when the need arises.


There is something good about the "free market of ideas", and the liberal practice of training students to think in multiple contradictory intellectual frameworks. I am very glad that in the course of my own intellectual formation I passed through several different systems of thought before ending up a Thomist. But liberalism has developed to a point at which it no longer makes sense for us to hearken back to the olden days, when the Christian consensus still undergirded public discourse and educational institutions could safely be run on liberal principles. The consensus is gone. Today, in order to defeat the menace of liberal anti-intellectualism that is taking over our universities and our society, we need to admit that liberal principles only functioned because they were bolstered by the non-liberal Christian moral and metaphysical commitments we still hold dear.

30 January 2016

The New York Times is telling us what we already knew...

Anyone who has followed the Democratic side of the presidential race so far will have been puzzled by the overwhelming bias demonstrated in major media outlets (the Times, CNN, HuffPost, MSNBC, etc.) in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Senator Bernie Sanders.  Clinton is trumpeted constantly; Sanders is given periodic grunts of acknowledgment.

Today the Times Editorial Board published their formal endorsement of Clinton, in which they make their case for her candidacy.

Given so much bias, so liberally displayed over the past year, one would expect a strong argument. But when presented straight on, the Times's case for Clinton is full of "empty propaganda slogans" and bland campaign promises that fail to really distinguish her from Bernie Sanders in a positive way, or show that she is in any substantial way superior to him as a candidate.  Ironically, the comparisons they make between Clinton and Sanders end up putting the latter in a better light, since her vague (but un-described) "plans" are set against his very concrete proposals for economic and healthcare reform.

23 January 2016

Traditionalism and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

(This was written over the past few evenings.  The sequel will focus more on traditionalism in the context of contemporary philosophical responses to the democratic crisis of multiculturalism.)


One of the primary problems of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on pluralism and the free exercise of religion, is learning how to play host to groups with fundamentally different viewpoints.  How does a society maintain a well-ordered public square without either biasing the rules of discourse and behavior to favor a particular positive stance, or banishing all metaphysical claims from public discourse and enforcing a purely negative secularism?

In the US, the difficulty of mediating conflicts between rival belief systems and cultural commitments has been ameliorated by two factors: first, by the predominately Christian character of  both the government and its underlying population—including immigrants; second, by American culture, which tends to infect immigrant populations soon after their arrival, dissolving cultural commitments and identities into the melting pot of economic pragmatism.  In Europe, where the native populations tend to have stronger national and cultural identities and immigrant populations tend to be less diverse, the process of naturalization is less automatic.  Immigrants tend to maintain their own subcultures as open alternatives to assimilation, because the cultural cost of assimilating is higher and the difficulty of sustaining a vibrant expatriate community lower.

In Europe, problem of  democratic pluralism has taken on a new urgency in recent years, as the strident secularism of the French Fifth Republic comes into increasingly violent conflict with Islam. Even if this core problem of liberal democracy is less visible in America today than it is in France, it is no less real.  Part of living in an increasingly liberal and democratic world is dealing with an endless string of crises resulting from cultural shifts and the absorption of new populations.  It is a problem the American religious right is increasingly familiar with, as we come to terms with our defeat in the culture wars.

The Romans dealt with the problem of cultural assimilation by accommodating conquered peoples and integrating their local religions (in part) into the Roman Pantheon.  Roman paganism, like Persian paganism before it, offered a sort of quasi-universalism—everyone's local deities were welcome, cultural practices were allowed to continue in the main, and the important civic rites of the conquerors were merely annexed to each local cult.  Where this universalism was hindered, the sword lubricated its progress with blood.

Modern liberal democrats, however, are mostly uncomfortable using the sword to solve the problems of cultural assimilation.  This is not to say that military force has not been used to settle ideological conflicts (one need only think of the Reign of Terror), but that the civic ideals of liberal democracy militate against this kind of solution.  And when one looks at the world of European philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century, a preoccupation with the development of discursive (as opposed to martial) solutions to the problem of pluralism is evident.  Why?

For most of the first two centuries of modern liberal democracy, the majority of these democracies were culturally homogeneous.  Ethnic divisions were primarily among European groups, with non-Europeans making up small, often disenfranchised, minorities.  Whatever their religious differences, Europeans (and groups grafted into the European tradition through colonization) share a common Christian moral outlook and a deeply-rooted Latin cultural heritage, both of which create a common ground which served as the foundation for political negotiation.  Political disputes within liberal democracies have, with a few major exceptions, dealt with fairly modest social and economic adjustments, rather than the fundamental re-invention of the political order.

This common ground is essential to the stability and survival of liberal regimes.  In America the ambient political culture encourages us to believe that the stability of our system of government is primarily a result of the excellence of the written constitution. But even supposing the stability of the United States was made possible by its constitution, it is important to realize that the constitution in its very nature is merely an instrument of popular political action: if it has worked, it has worked because conditions in society necessary to make it work have been present.  And if the cultural conditions for the stability of the constitutional regime are removed, the constitution will not be capable of sustaining itself.

In the 18th century David Hume outlined a vision of  constitutional government based on his desire to eliminate the problem of political instability that resulted from feuding political factions and crises of succession.  Hume's ideas about procedural neutrality have formed the basis of modern liberal regimes: The state is organized not on specific conceptions of the good or beliefs about transcendent order, but around value-neutral mediating structures which provide a venue for rival factions and conflicting ideologies to work things out, or to exchange authority in periods of transition.  The principle that constitutional governments should be designed to accommodate conflicts and cultural instability is one of the founding principles of the American Republic, and is eloquently defended in the Federalist Papers.

Constitutional procedures are designed to function as a neutral framework which mediates political differences and allows for stable negotiation and transitions of power.  Logically, then, any constitutional regime will cease to function properly when the arrangement at the basis of the constitutional regime is somehow rejected by its member groups. This can happen in a number of ways, but I would like to consider two in particular.

If a given democratic regime survives long enough, an ancillary political culture will inevitably develop around it, based on the enshrinement of ideas related to its core institutions.  As populations migrate in and out of a given territory, the common ground shared by all factions of a given democracy will necessarily become thinner, in order to accommodate the cultural compromises required for common participation in republican government.  But as the consensus uniting the various factions thins, the one element being reinforced necessarily and across the board, to guarantee the stability of the liberal constitutional arrangement, is commitment to liberal democratic procedures.  These procedures gradually cease to be thought of as practical mechanisms for the mediation of political differences, and are transformed into abstract moral principles: the constitutional preference against an established church becomes a principle upholding the secularity of the public sphere; the constitutional need to allow rival factions to exercise political functions is transformed into a doctrine of universal toleration, and so on.  This is not to say that these ideas are spontaneously invented by the population, but that through the cultivation of civic piety and the development of a strong tradition of liberal government, they will tend to become more compelling to the population and more widely adopted.  What is important here is the transformation of non-propositional procedural mechanisms into value-laden moral claims: What began as a neutral playing field begins to become the property of a particular ideological faction.

As the ideology of liberalism develops, the proponents of this ideology cease to see themselves as subscribing to an ideology—after all, the thing they support is nothing other than the neutral middle ground, the very foundation of democratic compromise.  Soon every faction other than the liberal faction is identified as being anti-liberal, precisely because they have interests and beliefs distinct from liberal neutrality, which they want to bring to the constitutional bargaining table.  And the more dominant the liberal ideology becomes, the more easily the neutral procedures of constitutional government are co-opted by the liberal faction, so that the interpretation of constitutional provisions is adjusted to allow the exclusion of dissent from the public sphere.  What is most bizarre about the resulting situation is that, in effect, the constitutional regime will have collapsed (after all, it no longer performs its mediating function), but it is not acknowledged as having collapsed, because the people who have destroyed it see themselves as its perfect proponents, and all its central traditional elements are preserved intact.

Non-liberals in liberal democracies today are faced with a scenario increasingly similar to the one just described.  They may try to push back the rising tide of liberal ideology, and reclaim the procedural neutrality promised to them by the constitutional arrangement, but it's a losing battle, and this is clear for two reasons.  First, and most simply, because the conflation of liberal procedural commitments and liberal ideology is too easy, and in any stable democratic society the population will be primed to shift from one to the other without much mental effort.  Second, because liberals are ceasing to be willing to cooperate within a constitutional framework with people who do not share their convictions.  Those who refuse to buy into liberal ideology lack sufficient political common ground for their participation in government to be allowed, and even if they are not forcibly excluded, compromise and political negotiation become more and more difficult to accomplish.

The liberal endgame teaches us an important lesson—one many who stand outside the liberal ideological consensus in America have long refused to accept.  The survival of a liberal democratic regime, and its flourishing, cannot hang primarily on the integrity of its constitutional procedures or neutral mediating structures.  The Humean goal of creating a government procedurally designed to withstand cultural turmoil and regime change is admirable, and I think extremely useful in the contemporary world, with its gigantic states and massive populations.  But Hume's proceduralism, while good, is not only insufficient, but not even the primary stabilizing force in liberal regimes.  Liberal democracies, republics of the American sort, stand or fall on account of the integrity and stability of the culture of the underlying population.

(To be continued...)

18 January 2016

Prolegomena to the Construction of an Argument Analogous to St. Thomas's Fourth Way

A reader wrote to me recently asking for a continuation of the dialogue given in this post.  While I never continued that dialogue, it was an expression of an internal dialogue I've been having with myself for the past few months about the natural knowability of the real order of perfection in things.  The topic emerged in the course of my work revising my commentary on the treatise De Deo Uno, questions 1-26 of St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae.  Below I present an excerpt from a draft of my commentary on Summa Theologiae Ia q. 2 a. 3, in which I lay the groundwork for an argument constructed along the lines of St. Thomas's "Fourth Way".  Allow me to emphasize that this is a draft and the line of thought is imperfect, though I think the rudiments are somewhat compelling.

_______________________


One of the most ordinary things a person can do is make a judgment of something’s quality or value. “These oranges are bad.” “That movie was good.” “The traffic lights are poorly timed.” “These mosquitos are terrible.” In one way, these judgments of value can be thought of as mere expressions of our dispositions toward things. Thus, saying something is “good” or “bad” is just another way of saying that I like or dislike that thing. People make value judgments in this way all the time.

Suppose however, that you are a gardener, and the spring tulips are just coming up. You compare them all, find one that is most excellent, and cut it. Now, you have a perfect tulip. But what makes the tulip perfect? Is the tulip really perfect, or is it only perfect by virtue of the fact that you like it?

There are two ways of answering this question: subjectively and objectively. On one hand, suppose you are growing tulips in order to use their flowers in an arrangement. You have a set of preferences that determine whether you judge a tulip to be more or less perfect, and those preferences may be based on your tastes and needs, rather than something intrinsic about the tulip plants themselves. For example, maybe you want only yellow tulips, and not red ones, or tulips whose stems are a certain length. Granted, your preferences are limited by what is naturally possible for a tulip, but they are imposed upon the tulip by you.

On the other hand, we can talk about the intrinsic perfection of a tulip plant. What does that mean? Well, we observe among all the tulip plants in your garden a commonality of makeup, structure, or form. All of them behave in the same way, develop along the same lines, have the same general features, and so on. It is this common form which makes each tulip a tulip, and which defines the species to which they all belong. Granted, in each individual plant, what is common to all the tulips is instantiated differently, based on the particular variations in material circumstances, nourishment, and so on. But we have no real difficulty in recognizing the sameness of makeup and identity between all the members of the species.

Once we recognize the sameness or specific form which characterizes all of these plants, we can start to look at each individual plant, not just in terms of its own chance features, but in relation to the common structure or specific form that unites it with all the other members of its kind. In other words, we start to see the tulip in relation to its essence, instead of just seeing it through its particular visible features. And this understanding of a thing in terms of its essence makes it possible for us to judge how well the individual instantiates the common form of the species. Does this tulip have robust, green foliage? Is its stem strong? Is it blossoming? Instead of taking each of these facts indifferently, or as features that we happen to like on account of our aesthetic preferences, we can understand them as signs of the overall health or disease of the plant—clues as to whether that common form is well-instantiated in it, or is in the midst of decomposition. And we associate these characteristics, which are not subjective, but intrinsic to the thing in question, with an objective feature of the tulip as a tulip, which we call its degree of perfection.

The notion of an objective degree of perfection is quite extraordinary, because it tells us something real about the plant: that there is a real standard according to which we can tell whether a plant is doing “better” or “worse” objectively. In a way, this thought might seem very obvious, even trivial. After all, we talk about things being healthy or unhealthy all the time. But if we accept the reality of common forms and intrinsic degrees of perfection, this means that the notions of “good” and “bad” have at least a foothold of objectivity in the natural world. To put it differently, it proves wrong Hamlet’s famous dictum that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”^[William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.] Of course, strictly speaking we have not proved just now the claim that there are intrinsic degrees of perfection, since a good philosopher would be able to raise a large number of objections to our analysis so far. The objections, to the extent that they are cogent, can (I believe) be answered, though the task of naming and replying to them is too much for the present. But at least we have shown how the notion of perfection integrates with the ordinary experience of reality, and makes sense of something very basic in that experience.

Degrees of Perfection Across Species

If we accept that there is an objective reality to the degrees of perfection of individual members of particular species, based on the fulness or strength of their individual instantiation of their specific forms, we have a universe full of different kinds of things, each with its own degree of perfection, relative to its species.

But an interesting problem occurs: in each case, the perfection of an individual thing is based on the comparison between that individual and the species as a whole. We judge something’s degree of perfection by comparing what this individual thing (a tulip, say) actually is, with what the best member of that species would be, as a member of that species. Does the tulip have wilted leaves? Well the best tulip would have very healthy robust leaves. Does the tulip have a strong stem? The best tulip would have a very strong stem. Can the tulip take in nutrients and reproduce? And so on. This kind of comparison, though, is always going to be relative to the species a thing belongs to. It makes no sense to judge whether a squirrel is perfect or not by comparing it to the ideal tulip. We cannot reasonably say “This squirrel must be diseased! It has no roots at all!” So this leaves us with a question: is perfection as an objective feature of things merely relative to individual species, or is there some sort of universal order of perfection, by which one species can be judged as more or less perfect than another as species?

In order to answer this question, we need to look more closely at the process by which we developed the idea of perfection in the first place. Our original notion of perfection was based on the commonness of the specific form shared between various individuals. This plant and that plant have the same structure, features, tendencies, and abilities. The integral makeup which constitutes the life (and life-cycle) of each plant is common to all the members of the species. Some investigative skill is necessary to identify this common specific form in the first place. We need to abstract what is essential from the peculiar features of each individual plant, and see the way different structural features, which are instantiated variously in the individuals, correspond to the analogous features and forms in other individual plants of the same species.

We can develop a more general notion of perfection by simply extending this analogical approach, and looking for greater or lesser degrees of unity and similarity across species. This oak tree may not be a tulip, but it shares with the tulip certain analogous forms and tendencies, such as the ability to grow and reproduce, or the possession of foliage and roots. By virtue of the real similarity of forms, we can group the two plants together, recognizing that while they may not have a common specific form, their like features unite them under the same genus or family of things.^[Note of course that our use of “genus” here does not correspond to the strict taxonomic use of the word among biologists, although the reader has probably noticed some similarity between them.] And once we establish a generic unity, we can use the strength of the generic community of species to identify trans-specific standards of perfection. For example, we might identify the genus “ferns”, and determine that one common feature of all the species which belong to this genus is that they produce spores. The particular features of the spores are left unspecified, but the general characteristic is known across the species as a definite sign of perfection.

As we expand the genera we choose to focus on, we can develop more and more universal notions of perfection. If we focus on “plants”, we can speak of autotrophy and photosynthesis. If we focus on “living things” we can speak of growth and reproduction. Finally we could generalize our consideration to substances as such, and we might identify unity or stability of form as signs of perfection.

However, as we follow this course, the usefulness of our analysis is progressively diluted by the breadth of the analogy. Though this method of forming trans-species standards of perfection does indeed give us a sense of what, across the board, makes things more or less perfect within their own species, we have a further question: Is there a hierarchy of species themselves? What would such a hierarchy be founded on?

Since the notion of perfection we have developed so far depends on the extent to which a thing stably retains or perfectly instantiates its specific form, one way to rank the perfection of species as such is by the way they possess their forms. For example, think about a heap of sand. As a thing, the heap of sand has certain determinate qualities: the arrangement of its parts into a whole, the material composition of those parts, the shape of the whole, its weight and density, etc. But the identity of the sand heap as an integral whole is not very robust. The sand heap has no ability to retain its form as it interacts with other things, or to restore itself, or grow, or reproduce itself by its own power. Nor does the sand heap as a whole add anything to the individual acts of its parts. As a heap, it is really just a collection of inert individuals.

Compare that sand heap to a plant. The plant is comparable to the sand heap in a number of ways: it has weight and density, is composed of a variety of distinct parts. But the plant’s form is sustained in the plant in a way that the sand heap’s is not. The plant is capable of taking things that are not part of it, and integrating them into its form. In contrast to the sand heap, being part of the plant genuinely adds something to the activity of these individual components. The properties of the plant’s parts are actualized by their participation in the plant’s life in a way that they would not be simply on their own, outside the plant. (For example, a single protein or bit of cellulose does little outside of a plant but decay, but within the plant it participates in a large number of extremely complex functions in coordination with the other plant parts.) Most extraordinarily, the plant is capable of perpetuating its form by reproduction. All of these features distinguish the form of the plant as a form from the form of the sand heap. We say that the form of the plant has more integrity as a form than the form of the heap—not only does the unity of the plant have more robustness than the unity of the sand heap, but the actuality of the plant in its natural behaviors enhances its material parts in a way that being part of a heap does not, and of course the specific form possessed by the plant has the ability to transcend its individual matter and communicate itself to the next generation.

This comparison between the formal integrity of a plant and a heap gives us the beginning of a hierarchy of perfections. Some things are more perfect than others, not just on account of the fulness with which they instantiate a common specific form, but also on account of the integrity of the form of which they are instances. The form of a plant is somehow more real than the form of a heap, in that it makes more of a real difference for the matter of the plant than the heap’s does for the grains of sand, and sustains itself with greater integrity regardless of the material conditions in which it finds itself, but perhaps most of all because it is partially independent of its individual matter. At the same time, the plant’s form contains in itself all the same sorts of formal perfections available to the sand heap—weight, substantiality, existence, etc.

Next, consider the difference between a plant and an animal, for example a cow. All the characteristics of the plant’s form that set it above the sand heap are shared by the cow as well: the ability to grow and nourish itself by integrating foreign matter into its own substance, the ability to heal, the ability to reproduce, the fact that being part of a cow elicits a variety of complex acts out of the otherwise inert components of the cow. But the form of the cow has a peculiar feature that the plant’s form does not—cows are capable of incorporating the forms of things around them into themselves not just by way of nutrition and growth, but also through sensation and imagination. A cow can be more than a cow, by seeing and hearing whatever is in its environment, and by retaining impressions of these things in its memory. Through perception and memory, the form of the cow becomes more than just the form of a cow, and also becomes the form of the grass, the places the cow roams, of other animals and people and things. Note that just as with the contrast between the plant and the sand heap, the difference here is not a simple amplification of a perfection already present in the the plant’s form, but the addition of a kind of formality not possessed at all by the plant. The form of the cow is in some way more real or more of a form than the form of the plant was, inasmuch as it rises above the form of its separate parts.

The cow is limited in its ability to incorporate the forms of other things into its own form, by its inability to analyze and abstractly understand its environment. If we pass from a cow to a rational animal, a human, we find not only the perfections which made the form of the cow more perfect than the form of the tulip—sensation, memory, desire, intention—but others as well. Humans are capable of understanding things not only in terms of their material forms, but also in terms of their structure, mechanics, essences, causes, etc. And they are capable of judging things not just in relation to their bodily appetites or fears, but in terms of their objective and intrinsic perfection. In other words, the abstract forms received in the mind of a human person are more real and capture more of the form than those received into the mind of a cow. They are not just sensory, but essential, and not just relative, but objective.

Let’s summarize our findings so far: first, we noted that it was possible to draw analogies across different kinds of things and find common standards according to which they could be said to be more perfect relative to their species. Then we compared four different kinds of things: a heap of sand, a plant, a cow, and a human. We found a common theme: some of these items have the characteristic perfections of others, but compound them by adding something extra: the plant can grow, heal, and pass on its form. The cow can add to its own form the sensible forms of things outside itself. The human can know and assess the real essences of things and their causes. The further we go in this series, the less attached a particular form is to the individual matter of a thing: the tulip’s form can endure after the matter of this tulip decays; the cow’s form is capable of receiving sensory forms of others into itself without becoming what it sees; the human’s form is capable of receiving the essences of things into itself, without losing its own essence. If we were to guess at a next step, it would involve something which was capable of overcoming the human dependence on matter (i.e. sense knowledge) to receive the forms of other things. Beyond that, a form which was in no way dependent on matter would be even more perfect.

Fortunately, we do not need to have a perfect understanding of the whole hierarchy of perfections in order to follow Thomas’s argument. The important points are (1) that there is a real hierarchy of species with respect to the intrinsic perfection of their forms, and (2) that the higher we go in this hierarchy, the more a thing’s form will have a reality independent of matter. However, our grasp of the hierarchy remains vague. Why should that be?

We can understand the intrinsic difficulty in mastering this universal hierarchy by thinking back again to the means by which we were able to establish a hierarchy of perfections in a tulip. We needed to have knowledge of a wide variety of tulips, and especially a knowledge of healthy tulips, in order to make any judgments about the relative perfection of any individual tulip. Supposing we only saw diseased tulips, would we be able to recognize accurately what constituted the perfection of a tulip? Only partially and indistinctly. Without having the highest element in this hierarchy of perfections available to analyze, it remains difficult to place all the other elements of the hierarchy relative to each other. And this is because in some way all judgments of perfection are dependent on knowledge of what is most perfect in a given genus.

To conclude, we will take up St. Thomas’s preferred example, and the fulness of the problem will become clear. In his statement of the Fourth Way, St. Thomas refers to the relationship between fire (which is essentially hot) and hot things in general. We compare the heat of one hot thing to another hot thing by implicitly holding them against the common standard of heat, which is fire. In St. Thomas’s mind, fire stands apart from all other kinds of heat, because for a fire, to be hot is part of the essence of what it is—you cannot have a fire without heat, since the rapid propagation of heat is what makes a fire a fire. Other hot things differ from fire in this respect: they have heat as an accidental attribute, but not as a constitutive feature of what they are.

Imagine a world in which we only ever saw things that were warm, but never any essential source of warmth, never any fire. We would have a sense that there was some ultimate source of heat, but nothing to refer back to, to explain the original warmth of all the cooling objects around us. Or imagine (as Plato famously has us imagine in his Republic) people whose whole experience in life consisted of seeing shadows of things dance along the walls of a cave. There might be a sense that something more real than the shadows lay behind them, but it would be difficult to grasp what that was.

With the universal hierarchy of perfections, we have exactly this problem: every perfection we witness in the world is relative to the being of a particular species or genus, and is therefore only a partial expression of absolute and universal perfection. We might find an excellent tulip, but that tulip does not embody perfection as such—only a certain tulip-like approximation of absolute perfection. And the same goes for all the other things we have discussed. But none of these things are perfect in and of themselves, just as none of them have the fulness of what it means to exist in and of themselves. And, once we realize this, we are ready to move to the final principle in St. Thomas’s argument.

15 January 2016

Early Morning Confusion

Most days the first thing I do upon waking is open up my laptop and run through my RSS reader and the front pages of the major news sites.  This morning I saw the following headline above an article by Sandro Magister:

When It Comes To Gay Unions, Bergoglio Doesn't Say No
They are about to become law in Italy, but the pope is discouraging Catholics 
from raising the barricades.


My first thought was "gay people are unionizing in Italy? Is this part of the 'gay lobby'?"

12 January 2016

Aphasia and Annual Updates


Occasionally it disturbs me that I have taken the name of a serious medical condition and used it as the title of my blog.  When I started The Paraphasic, it was called "Paraphasic Manifestos", the idea being that I frequently express myself poorly and fail to think things through to the extent that I should, so that the blog would be a collection of over-serious ideological declarations ("manifestos"), riddled with errors of speech and mis-expressed ideas ("paraphasic").  The wryness of the title doesn't really match the seriousness of actual aphasia and paraphasia, though, which makes it seem (perhaps once a year or so) like it might be irreverent.  I hope no one has been offended by it.

This morning I discovered several videos on YouTube dealing with forms of aphasia.  First there was this video of Byron Peterson, who suffers from Wernicke's Aphasia, a condition in which he speaks fluidly (and with normal intonation and gusto, even) but the words his mouth produces have little connection to the thoughts he means to express by them ("word salad").  Mr. Peterson's account of himself in this video is wonderful.  I hope that, should I ever lose language, I am half as easygoing and cheerful as this man.


Mr. Byron's video led me to a bunch of other videos, including several by a woman named Sarah Scott.  Ms. Scott suffered a stroke at the age of 18, with resulting aphasia.  Over the past six years she has recorded annual video interviews in which she discusses her progress, current difficulties, and what she's doing.  Here are the first and sixth of these update videos.




Ms. Scott's videos led me to another series of update videos, done by a man named Jack Hurley, who suffered a stroke at age 15, resulting in Broca's Aphasia, from which he has largely recovered.  Here is the first of Mr. Hurley's update videos, in which he gives an account of his stroke and personal difficulties.


These update videos seem to be common among people who experience aphasia.  It's a great idea because, as Ms. Scott explains above, progress can be very slow, and can seem non-existent, but it's relatively easy to notice differences in a video record.  The videos function not as diaries or annals so much as recorded demonstrations of a person giving an account of himself, so that one can see "where I was" in terms of speaking ability and fluency at a given stage.

It would be interesting to do the same thing, not on account of aphasia, but just to track one's life — once a year, a general account of oneself, one's difficulties, and one's present occupation.  Could be worthwhile.