01 October 2013

from Infinite Jest

Where was the woman who said she'd come. She said she would come. Erdedy thought she'd have come by now. He sat and  thought. He was in the living room. When he started waiting one window was full of yellow light and cast a shadow of light  across the floor and he was still sitting waiting as that shadow began to fade and was intersected by a brightening shadow from a  different wall's window. There was an insect on one of the steel shelves that held his audio equipment. The insect kept going in  and out of one of the holes on the girders that the shelves fit into. The insect was dark and had a shiny case. He kept looking over  at it. Once or twice he started to get up to go over closer to look at it, but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he  would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it. He did not use the phone to call the woman who'd promised to come because if he tied up  the line and if it happened to be the time when maybe she was trying to call him he was afraid she would hear the busy signal and  think him disinterested and get angry and maybe take what she'd promised him somewhere else.

She had promised to get him a fifth of a kilogram of marijuana, 200 grams of unusually good marijuana, for $1250 U.S. He  had tried to stop smoking marijuana maybe 70 or 80 times before. Before this woman knew him. She did not know he had tried to  stop. He always lasted a week, or two weeks, or maybe two days, and then he'd think and decide to have some in his home one  more last time. One last final time he'd search out someone new, someone he hadn't already told that he had to stop smoking dope  and please under no circumstances should they procure him any dope. It had to be a third party, because he'd told every dealer he  knew to cut him off. And the third party had to be someone all-new, because each time he got some he knew this time had to be  the last time, and so told them, asked them, as a favor, never to get him any more, ever. And he never asked a person again once  he'd told them this, because he was proud, and also kind, and wouldn't put anyone in that kind of contradictory position. Also he  considered himself creepy when it came to dope, and he was afraid that others would see that he was creepy about it as well. He sat and thought and waited in an uneven X of light through two different windows. Once or twice he looked at the phone. The  insect had disappeared back into the hole in the steel girder a shelf fit into.

11 September 2013

Unit 1 Study Guide

For my freshmen, this is the study guide I've put together for their first test on "Sacraments and Sacramentality."  There's a funny fusion of somewhat amorphous theological jargon from the required curriculum (e.g., "sacramental dullness") and other, somewhat less obscure catechetical notions.  Comments welcome.



Sign - anything that points beyond itself or has a meaning

Symbol - a sign that brings together several meanings, or a sign that represents something especially complex or abstract

Ritual - a series of symbolic actions performed in a prescribed order which together direct our attention to an overarching meaning or truth

Sacrament (Augustine) - a visible sign that conveys invisible grace

Sacrament (Catechism) - an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church by which divine life is dispensed to us.

Sacramental Awareness - an openness to grace that moves us to find God in all things and to participate in the life of the Church

Sacramental Dullness - being closed off to grace because of sin, pride, or doubt, so that we lose a sense of how creation points back to the goodness of God.


1.  Faith -- "The fullness of the Christian Faith is in the Catholic Church."  Because of the three pillars of the Catholic Faith: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, the Church has a unique promise of fidelity to the truths God has revealed to us in the prophets, scriptures, and through Jesus Christ.

a.  Scripture -- The Bible is passed down through the church, in the mass and by being carefully protected and taught from one generation to another.  The Church makes sure that the Scriptures we read are the authentic scriptures, inspired by God and authored by Historians, Poets, Apostles, and Prophets to convey Divine truth.

b.  Tradition -- The Catholic tradition stretches in a continuous line from the Apostles to the present day.  In each generation we receive and preserve what the previous generation was taught, and make sure to distinguish between the authentic tradition and new ideas that don't come from God.

c.  Magisterium -- (Magister = "teacher";  "Magisterium" = teaching office) The Faith of the Church is watched over and defended by the Bishops and the Pope, whose job it is to make sure that, as we find new ways of understanding and explaining the truths of Divine Revelation, we don't misunderstand it or change the Gospel from what Jesus taught.  As Catholics, we believe that when the Bishops and Pope are gathered together and speak for the Church, God keeps them from making mistakes about doctrine.

2.  The Sacraments -- The sacraments are the main ordinary tools God uses to bestow grace on us.  By being Baptized we are joined to the Church and receive the Divine Life that Jesus Christ came to offer us.  In Holy Communion we are spiritually nourished, and the love for God that draws us to him is strengthened.  Each sacrament strengthens us spiritually so that we can more fully love God and seek him out in our daily living, in preparation for Heaven.

3.  Friendship/Community -- What makes two people friends is that they want the best for each other.  But in order to want what is really best for another person, you have to have a sense of what's actually best for them.  (E.g. thinking cocaine is great for someone wouldn't really be compatible with friendship.)  So the best friendships will be based on a shared love of the absolute best thing for a human being.  That absolute best is being united with God in knowledge and love.  In the Church many people are gathered together to help each other find God, get closer to him in love and knowledge, and understand/live the Gospel more deeply.

4.  The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ -- The Church is like a massive vine, that receives all its life from its root, Christ.  When we are baptized, we (like lifeless branches) are grafted onto the vine, and receive nourishment through the vine.  If we cut ourselves off from that nourishment, we wither spiritually and die.  But if we remain attached to it and stay open to that nourishment (grace), we will grow and become healthy and bear fruit.  Another way of thinking about this is that we are organs transplanted into a body.  The life-force of the body (the grace of Christ) that nourishes all its organs needs to flow through us in order for us to survive.  Otherwise we will rot away from inside.


Who is God?  God is utterly perfect, eternal, and unchanging.  He is the source of all goodness, because he himself is pure and perfect goodness.  Together the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rejoice in their sharing of supreme perfection.  God's goodness is so great that nothing can be added to make him better.  He is perfectly happy in the act of knowing and loving himself, because there is nothing better than God.  But God wants to share his perfect goodness with others.  He does this in three ways:

Three ways God shares his goodness:
- By giving things EXISTENCE
- By giving things LIFE
- By giving things GRACE

GRACE is God's freely offered gift of himself to us, that elevates and perfects us so that we can share in his happiness in heaven.

How to understand Grace:
--We love things because we recognize that they are good.
--It is very easy to recognize the goodness of visible things: family, friends, food, fun, etc.
--As a result, it is easy to get wrapped up in the goodness of created things and forget the Supreme Goodness of the one who created them.
--Adam and Eve's sin in the garden was a deliberate choice to have a world without God, in which they could enjoy created things without thinking about their creator.
--After Adam and Eve, it is more difficult for us to look for God.  Our instinct is to avoid him.
--But God loves us so much that he wants us to come back to him, and is always offering to forgive us for hiding from him and disobeying him.
--The way God helps us to return to him is GRACE.
--In Grace, God plants a seed of his own life in our hearts, and that seed tugs at us and gives us the desire to move past the good things of the world and find God reflected in them, and ultimately beyond them.
--We can reject grace or nurture it.  As long as we have it, it moves us to love God and neighbor, and to go after him.
--The ultimate goal of that Grace-filled quest for God is union with him in Heaven, where we will share in his goodness and love.

Once you think you have understood "Grace", go back to the definitions of "Sacrament".  Do they make more sense now?  

17 July 2013

As in the Prose of Gertrude Stein

 Recording taken from PennSound.  This is from a reading by Kenneth Koch of his poem "One Train."

15 July 2013

The New Marriage, Society and the Law

America is no longer a Christian state.

1.1 Despite its constitutional pretensions, for most of its history America has morally behaved like a Christian state, since everyone’s conception of the natural law (or “what is obviously right”) was more or less a Christian conception.

1.2 As the grip of Christian culture and moral formation has loosened and been replaced by [an amorphous epicurean beast], common sense no longer directs our moral reasoning along Christian lines, and progressively more groups of individuals find reason to challenge the weak moral consensus and open up space for new choices and pleasures.

1.3 The culmination of this process has been (or will soon be) a re-opening of the American mind to an awareness of the epistemological basis (or lack thereof) of traditional (Christian) moral norms. There is no longer a monolithic voice in our culture on ethical matters. The preacher cannot count on having Satan as his sole competitor.

1.4 In light of all this, it seems unreasonable for us to expect narrowly Christian ideas about marriage to be politically enforced. “Marriage” has taken on a life of its own, one oriented toward the aforementioned “new pleasures and choices” in a way that it has rarely been historically, as far as I can tell. Marriage apologetics basically miss this point, and this is probably the biggest logical reason why the pro-marriage side has lost the struggle for narrative supremacy.

2 The New Marriage belongs to a different genus of activity than (broadly construed) Christian marriage.

2.01 These names lend themselves to confusion on both sides.  There is nothing new about the New Marriage.  It has been practiced and preached in the United States for at least a century, in various forms.  There is likewise nothing specifically Christian about Christian Marriage as the term is used here: we are speaking of a social practice and not a sacrament.

2.1 The New Marriage has a narrative terminus, just like any other regular human activity (eating, drinking, sex, computer programming, baseball, reading, etc.). The terminus in this case is the sexually “fulfilled” life of two people together in a state of blissful emotional entanglement. Because of this, the New Marriage no longer has any intrinsic reason for being contractual. It is based on physical and emotional bonds, and is as dissoluble as those bonds. Any contractual character is merely a way of publicly declaring that the two individuals are emotionally entangled and sexually fulfilled and intend to stay that way.

2.2 Christian Marriage, by contrast, functions primarily through the interest of a pair in protecting and rearing their children, and has a kind of natural long-term contractual character to it (inasmuch as children take a long time to rear, and in the context of such a bond more children tend to appear).

2.3 Because it is easily and generally recognized that parents ought to care for their children, and that this duty implies an extended bond, which is ordinarily perpetuated by the begetting of more children, by bonds of friendship, and by material expediency, Christian Marriage has normally been not merely a spontaneous, individual activity, but one prescribed by and condoned by communities. It is not merely in the interest of the parents to marry, but also in the interest of the parents’ parents, and the general concern that this sort of behavior take place spreads out naturally among the members of a community, for the protection of the young and the edification of those who have children.

2.31 The New Marriage is to Christian Marriage as Evangelical Baptism is to Catholic Baptism: A sign, which effects nothing, binds nothing, but means to express something.

2.32 The New Marriage, by being “marriage”, being “official”, having a rite, a law, and, in short, a public aspect, gains an extra degree of dignity. It receives a social, quasi-communal mandate, analogous to that proper to Christian Marriage by virtue of its association with natural duty, but instead tied to the common will for neighbors in society to do well, to pursue friendship, and to find physical and emotional fulfillment in another.

2.4 We might ask, then, how the New Marriage came to be called “Marriage”, when it fundamentally a different thing. If Christian Marriage, in terms of the integrity of its social basis, can be compared to food, then the New Marriage might justly be compared to perfume. Many of the sweetest delights of food are present in perfume, but only in a society where the practice of eating had been largely obviated could a confusion arise between the two.

3 The New Marriage is practically dependent on certain features of a highly technological and wealthy society.

3.1 It’s not that New Marriage is impossible without birth control, a high degree of wealth, geographical mobility, and the possibilities for communication that come with advanced technology. However, it seems unlikely that anyone would bother to enshrine the New Marriage in a situation where these features of our society were absent.

3.2 A historical genealogy of the roots (in practice) of the New Marriage seems to confirm this. If the chief oddity of the New Marriage is its being named “marriage” in the first place, given the history of that term in our culture, then any decent explanation must show how the increased social emphasis on secondary aspects of Christian marriage enabled the primary aspects (which lie at the root, socially, of its institutionalization) to be displaced altogether.

3.21 We might ask how Thanksgiving came to be about eating turkey, when historically that word refers to something of a different genus altogether. The ceremonial aspects, which are the practice’s most salient feature, became its focus, and its former ratio was lost to history.

3.211 Many arguments against the New Marriage amount to "Thanksgiving is about eating turkey; how dare you mess it up by eating duck or stuffed squash."  Rather than understand the roots of marriage and its emergence as a contingent feature of Christian society, they stop at the latest possible conception of the New Marriage that suits their prejudices, and enshrine its features as essential.

3.22 All the common narratives about marriage for the past century have supported this transformation.

3.3 Given that Christian marriage has been displaced by something which shares only its secondary features, are the original social functions which led to the emergence of that genus of marriage being seen to? Are the rights of children being fulfilled?

3.31 By definition, it seems clear that the answer is “no”, unless the “New Marriage” in question functions additionally as a “Christian Marriage”. Thus in order to be just, mere New Marriages (which tend, on the whole, to be transient just like the emotional entanglements they are based on) must be sterile.

3.4 The rise of the New Marriage, because it has not been simply organic (the petrification of a decayed social function into an intricate ornament on the face of a more advanced culture) but has taken place through polemic and political struggle, has displaced not merely the practice of Christian marriage, but also the consideration of its primary object: since Christian marriage has been cast aside, the concern for one’s debts to one’s offspring has likewise been cast aside.

3.41 These debts, however, persist, and their neglect is to the detriment (materially, emotionally) of children, as well as (for lack of friendship, stability, and opportunities to develop virtue) their parents.

3.5 Only in a society awash with wealth, in which widely available emotional analgesia and material comfort are available, could such an arrangement be enshrined as superior to the alternative.

3.51 Doubts arise: old metaphors and gender issues in Christian marriage as traditionally practiced made it a potentially oppressive way of securing justice for Children. 

4 These need to be discussed, by someone not myself.

12 July 2013

Thomism after Vatican II

The great Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, at the Dominican House of Studies last week:

06 July 2013

Twenty-one Random Movies in Two Sentences Each

1.  Daybreakers — Almost all of humanity having become vampires, the remaining humans are farmed for blood, which is increasingly scarce.  The film's chief merit is its attempt at a realistic portrait of how society would develop under the given conditions.

2.  Ken Burns' America: Huey Long — Ken Burns tracks the rise and fall of the Kingfish, who for a time ran Louisiana like his own private kingdom.  One of Burns's better documentaries.

3.  Swiss Family Robinson (1960) — A Swiss Family (not named "Robinson," the title being a reference to Robinson Crusoe) is marooned on a tropical island and must survive on the power of their wits and what they can scavenge from the wreckage of their ship.  Features the most epic treehouse ever.

4.  Lost in Translation — When a burnt out action movie star goes to Tokyo to star in a commercial for Suntory Whiskey, he encounters a depressed newly-wed woman, abandoned by her photographer husband in a hotel.  Through their insomnia, the two form a melancholy friendship based on mutual feelings of frustration with marriage, work, and purposelessness.

5.  Girl, Interrupted — After a panic-induced drug overdose, a recent prep-school graduate checks herself into a mental hospital for recovery and has various encounters with the patients and staff.  The movie is fairly disturbing, but has an exceptional cast, including Winona Ryder, Brittany Murphy, Whoopie Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave, Angelina Jolie, and Elizabeth Moss.

6.  The Social Network — Socially mal-adjusted Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg makes a series of enemies while struggling to launch The Facebook.  Despite its unusual story, excellent writing, and fine acting, the final product is a little underwhelming, possibly for want of interesting social commentary.

7.  The Bourne Identity — Matt Damon stars alongside Franka Potente (Lola Rennt) in this fast-paced, trim action thriller.  Despite the rather far-fetched plot (which drags considerably in some of the sequels), it's difficult not to be absorbed in the harmonious execution of the story.

8.  Wait Until Dark — This terrifying film stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who struggles to defend herself when a drug runner comes hunting for a misplaced package that has been left in her apartment.  The two things I remember most from the film are a teddy bear and a switchblade with carved ivory grip.

9.  Mission: Impossible — Tom Cruise plays a secret agent charged to do something or other (hack a computer, I think).  There's some betrayal, some weird explosive chewing gum, and that iconic scene where he's suspended in the white room with the computer and almost hits the floor.

10.  Return of the King: Extended Edition — This epic adaptation of the third part of The Lord of the Rings includes a large portion of the story that ought to have happened in The Two Towers, but which Peter Jackson (for reasons of stupidity) put off for the final installment, making it rather bloated.  There are some problems with the film, the most disturbing of which are as follows: (1) the increased role of the Army of the Dead, (2) the awful scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol where Frodo tells Sam to "go home," (3) the absurd closeness of all the geographical locations (Mount Doom being essentially visible from inside Minas Tirith), but on the whole it's the strongest of the trilogy.

11.  Garden State — This was that Zach Braff movie with the hip soundtrack that everyone went crazy about.  It left me listening to Frou Frou for several years, which really isn't such a bad thing.

12.  American Experience: LBJ — Lyndon Johnson created the modern American welfare state.  Whether this was because he was a wicked human being, or in order to make up for that fact, the documentary doesn't tell us.

13.  The Black Stallion — I saw this when I was very young, and it's difficult not to confuse it with Black Beauty in my head.  The latter is told from the perspective of the horse, I think, but this one is just about a boy's friendship with a horse.

14.  Dr. Strangelove — At the height of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick made this horrifying parody of nuclear politics, in which an insane general attempts to set off the destruction of the world.  One thing to take away: if you value the purity of your essence, of your precious bodily fluids, then never drink Fluorinated water.

15.  Monsters, Inc. — Not having seen either of the Cars movies, this is probably my least favorite Pixar film.  Billy Crystal and John Goodman co-star as workers in a monster power factory which harvests the energy of children's fears by sneaking into their rooms at night.

16.  The Rock — Former Alcatraz inmate Sean Connery helps sneak Jack Nicholson (haha, I can't believe I wrote this; it's Nicholas Cage, not Jack Nicholson) into the prison so he can defuse a chemical bomb colonel Ed Harris is poised to launch on San Francisco.  Connery does a delightful job, and the film is fun to watch.

17.  A Perfect Murder — Gwenyth Paltrow has an affair with artist Viggo Mortensen, who is then recruited by her husband, the financially distressed Michael Douglas, to murder her for money.  Things do not go according to plan.

18.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) — Peter O'Toole stars in this musical remake about a schoolmaster's struggle to maintain discipline and rigorous academic standards in changing times.  He and his wife are beloved by (virtually) everyone.

19.  The Hobbit (1977) — Extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, including a terrifying, frog-like Gollum, huge noses all around, and creepy elves.  Much better than the Peter Jackson version, so far, and has the advantage of starring John Huston as the (unforgettable) voice of Gandalf.

20.  The Last Days of Disco — Whit Stillman's third film looks at the cruelty and degeneracy of New York social life for young adults at the end of the Disco Era.  You will dislike basically all of the characters, but possibly like the movie anyway.

21.  Shutter Island — Leonardo DiCaprio plays a crazy (or maybe not crazy?!?!?!?!) boston police officer with a patchy accent, on a visit to a prison for the insane.  The best part of the movie is recognizing Max von Sydow as the ex-Nazi psychiatrist; the worst is the pointless suspense and stupid ending.

05 July 2013

The False Ideal of the Green City

[This is taken from a reply to a comment on that bloated movie review I wrote for Fare Forward last summer.  The originals can be found here.]

...The question about the green city is an interesting one. I think the ideal of the green city is a compromise between ecological soundness and capitalism that we should really question. Anyway, in my analysis I was mainly going for layered sets of metaphors. The city is capitalism, is alienation from nature, is tyrannical government. Given these associations, all clearly supported in the movie, the the city's dissolution is much more profound. Imagine if The Lorax had ended with an eco-friendly city instead. That would have totally killed the movie, no? The capitalist would still reign, the citizens would be just as alienated from nature, it would just be an accident of the products they were consuming that they didn't devastate the surroundings. In that situation, the people benefit the least. Anyway, as for blaming Christianity, I think that's incorrect. The abuses of nature are much more compellingly traced to modern philosophical thought. Beginning in the 16th century with the emergence of a new humanism during the renaissance and the enlightenment, europeans thought of human nature as fundamentally discontinuous with the natural world. The natural world was meant to be battered and subjugated and made useful for human ends, which were rational and intentional and (in a non-religious sense) super-natural. This idea of man as the rational spirit at work to bend nature to his will has lingered in the popular consciousness of the west for some centuries now, and it's done a great deal of harm. But it is not fundamentally a Christian idea. It's a humanist idea. Christian thought has a strong tradition of seeing the continuity between human nature and the natural world and understanding that man is charged with the task of governing the natural world, which means respecting and caring for it according to what it is.

The Ethics of Privilege

[I wrote the following a few months ago for Fare Forward's Patheos blog.]

In light of Sarah Ngu’s recent post on privilege, I’d like to offer some rough thoughts on problems we face in defining privilege and distinguishing between the moral qualities of different sorts of privilege. I’m still working through the issue, so comments on the view I’m presenting would be appreciated.
1.  In Sarah’s post, she cites Andy Crouch’s definition of privilege as the enjoyment of benefits on the basis of someone else’s past creative power.
2.  By this definition, privilege includes every aspect of human life.  I breathe today because of the exercise of creative power by my parents in the past.  I use this computer because of the exercise of creative power of its manufacturer, of the people who built it in a factory somewhere, of scientists in universities who developed the techniques necessary to make complex instruments like this one possible.  Everything we do participates in this dependence, this reaping of benefits.
3.  Clearly the sense of the word “privilege” normally used in moral discussions is narrower than all that.  It makes little sense to attach the normal moral weight associated with privilege (generally, guilt) to my ability to eat or breathe or sleep or think about chestnuts.  Dependence and debt do not imply abuse or injustice.
4.  So how do we sift out the different moral strata of privilege?  Instead of settling with “those benefits that result from the past use of creative power by others,” I’d like to outline two progressively narrower descriptions of privilege which help convey the moral relevance of the concept.
5.  First, there’s the privilege which forms a habitual, invisible element of our daily way of existing.  The privilege of having decent roads, of having a postal system, of being able to trust that no one will murder you in the night, of finding fellow citizens affable and open to discourse or friendship, of expecting to be cared for by your mother and father, of expecting your children to care for you in your senility, etc.  These are privileges (whether some of them are also rights—that is, things we owe to each other as basic conditions of social order—I will bracket) that are not universally shared, but which form and make possible the way of living that many of us enjoy.    Privileges of this variety—let’s call them customary privileges, since they depend on the stable customs of a society—are good to have and to share, and they are generally expressions of a kind of social excellence.
6.  The moral quality of these customary privileges comes chiefly from the way they form our habits of thought and expectations about the world.  Someone who comes from a socially well-adjusted and virtuous background may be less inclined to understand how defects in other sectors of society cause difficulties.  The comfortably employed republican may have moral scorn for the obesity of the urban poor, not realizing the ways familial breakdown, community violence, anxiety and poverty conspire to make obesity more common.  Likewise the trendy bourgeois university student may have a patronizing contempt for that same population, imagining that their lack of educational privilege makes them incapable of rational judgment and in need of intervention from the state and its cronies to run their lives.  (Variants of these two errors abound.)  Privilege can shape our expectations and lead to delusional prejudices and bad judgments about unfamiliar ways of living.
7.  Note, though, that just as privilege in general, by Mr. Crouch’s definition, has no intrinsic moral quality to it, what we’ve called “customary privilege” is likewise morally neutral.  Sometimes it leads us into error, but this is only an accidental consequence of what might otherwise be a positive moral good.  To be raised in a community with stable homes, good friendships, the influence of extended family, reasonable prosperity, work, and education is indeed a great thing.  That familiarity with such a world would lead to confusion about the precise conditions and mechanics of a situation which defected from that ideal is no sin.  Imprudent intervention in or unjust condemnation of someone else’s life on the basis of ignorance is, however, morally questionable.
8.  We divided off “customary privilege” from privilege taken generally by limiting it to those benefits that form a habitual (and therefore largely invisible) element of our daily way of existing.  Thus there are many benefits received on the basis of past exercises of creative power that are not “customary”.  The difference between customary privilege and non-customary privilege is thus essentially determined by the subject who receives the benefits in question: whether he is aware of their contingency and recognizes their dependence on the work of others.
9.  However, we can divide privilege a second way, not on the basis of the person receiving benefits, but on the basis of the “creative power” by which the benefits are won.  In the subject that receives the benefits of privilege, the moral quality comes most obviously through the ways privilege shapes that person’s understanding of the world and the moral character it encourages in the individual and his actions toward others.  But on the part of the person exercising a power to create benefits, the morality rests not in the shaping of his consciousness but in the rectitude of the act itself.  Thus, depending on whether the original act or set of acts by which benefits are won is morally good or corrupt, we can divide privilege accordingly.  In particular, we can specify “unjust privilege” as benefits accrued from a past act or set of acts which are unjust or broadly immoral.
[10.  Here the phrase "creative power" used in our original definition proves to be quite dubious, since obviously many benefits are won by the use of power that is not creative at all.  (Those of us accustomed to "checking our privilege" probably cringed when we read Crouch's definition, since it assumes moral positivity in past actions that are frequently dubious or evil.) ]
11.  Unjust privileges seem to lack the broad moral neutrality of customary privileges and privilege in general, because it is possible for privilege derived from evil acts to perpetuate an acceptance of that evil, or to make the original injustice habitual and invisible.  Possible, but not necessary.  It is likewise possible for unjust privilege to result in a basically normal and morally neutral way of thinking and behaving, but one that still bears the consequences of past sin.  The great great grandchildren of a usurper king may be just and godly rulers, though their line lacks historical legitimacy.  This fact of history need not morally taint their personal acts.  They are not guilty for receiving the benefits of their ancestor’s crime.
12.  So again it seems that even privilege based on past acts that are morally evil does not necessarily implicate the beneficiaries in that guilt.
13.  We are left, then, with two ways of thinking about privilege, neither of which necessarily carries with it any degree of moral fault.  So how does moral fault enter into privilege in general?
14.  Privilege is the reception of benefits on the basis of someone else’s past (or continuing present) actions.  Privilege becomes morally problematic when the acceptance of these benefits participates in a systematic injustice or evil act which deprives someone else of what is due to them or is morally corrosive of the one benefitting.  This is to say, if in accepting the benefits of privilege one is depriving another person of what is rightly theirs, and perpetrating or perpetuating some act of violence against them.
15.  Aside from such situations, privilege is morally neutral, and becomes significant in the moral life of individuals only insofar as it shapes their understanding of things and ability to make sound prudential judgments.  However, privilege is not unique in creating bias or prejudice, since the lack of privilege likewise participates in the formation of our understanding of the world, and just as often for the worse.
16.  This is to say that it is not privilege as such that has any particular bearing on someone’s moral status or credibility, but their honesty, prudence, justice, and general moral rectitude.  With privilege or without it, the same things make one a good person or a bad person.  Privilege itself has no intrinsic moral status, but acquires moral relevance only by association with some other act.  We might compare privilege to a hammer, which is ordinarily a neutral tool, open to being used in a variety of ways, but when misused for malicious intent or stolen from someone becomes implicated in that evil.
17.  Thus the rejection of any intellectual position on the ground of the privilege of the one holding it is prima facie ridiculous and, worse, unjustly discriminatory.  We should be as unwilling to tolerate discrimination on the ground of privilege as discrimination because of the lack of privilege.
18.  And, finally, the assignment of guilt (or praise!) merely on the basis of whether someone has received the benefits of others’ past actions is likewise reprehensible and unjust.  Privilege does not impart guilt any more than disadvantage and oppression do.  Instead it is always injustice, imprudence, officiousness, intemperance, cowardice and pride that create guilt.  And these are qualities to be found across all strata of society, regardless of one’s privilege.

03 July 2013

Attempting to Follow the First Way

I.  A reader recently requested a response to some pretty bad objections to St. Thomas's first way (aka the "Argument from Motion").  Since I'd been planning on working through the five ways, but was really paralyzed by the difficulty of the task, I took the request as a prompt to get this one done with.  I should preface my remarks by admitting that when I started working through it (and for the past year or so) I had very little confidence that the first way actually proves God's existence.  However, I gave it my best, or at least seven so hours over a few days, and I find it, as outlined here (which is expanded greatly beyond the original Summa text, obviously) moderately compelling, though not absolutely (see [T] below).

II.  First, let's have the text in front of us.  

Respondeo dicendum quod Deum esse quinque viis probari potest. Prima autem et manifestior via est, quae sumitur ex parte motus. Certum est enim, et sensu constat, aliqua moveri in hoc mundo. Omne autem quod movetur, ab alio movetur. Nihil enim movetur, nisi secundum quod est in potentia ad illud ad quod movetur, movet autem aliquid secundum quod est actu. Movere enim nihil aliud est quam educere aliquid de potentia in actum, de potentia autem non potest aliquid reduci in actum, nisi per aliquod ens in actu, sicut calidum in actu, ut ignis, facit lignum, quod est calidum in potentia, esse actu calidum, et per hoc movet et alterat ipsum. Non autem est possibile ut idem sit simul in actu et potentia secundum idem, sed solum secundum diversa, quod enim est calidum in actu, non potest simul esse calidum in potentia, sed est simul frigidum in potentia. Impossibile est ergo quod, secundum idem et eodem modo, aliquid sit movens et motum, vel quod moveat seipsum. Omne ergo quod movetur, oportet ab alio moveri. Si ergo id a quo movetur, moveatur, oportet et ipsum ab alio moveri et illud ab alio. Hic autem non est procedere in infinitum, quia sic non esset aliquod primum movens; et per consequens nec aliquod aliud movens, quia moventia secunda non movent nisi per hoc quod sunt mota a primo movente, sicut baculus non movet nisi per hoc quod est motus a manu. Ergo necesse est devenire ad aliquod primum movens, quod a nullo movetur, et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality toactuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

II.  It cannot be stressed enough with commonly excerpted texts like ST Ia q.2 a.3 that Thomas is writing for "beginners in theology," that is, people who have already completed several years of graduate study in (Aristotelian) philosophy.  He doesn't explain a lot of his concepts in great depth, and sometimes leaves important premises undemonstrated, because he assumes that his readers already have a high degree of familiarity with them.  Most people who read ST Ia q.2 have no familiarity with these concepts and principles at all.  So we've got to do bit of preliminary legwork.  

III.  POTENCY / ACT : St. Thomas distinguishes between the potency or "potentiality" of a thing and its act or "actuality".  What does this mean, and how does he come by this distinction?  Suppose I love making things with apples (apple butter, apple sauce, apple pies, apple cakes, caramel apples, you name it).  When I bring home a sack of apples and set them down in my kitchen, I know that they may some day become sauce or pie, even though they aren't yet.  The apples are "in potency" to become pie, but in actuality, they aren't pie.  They're still just apples, and despite this "potency" they may never become pie.  I may, from forgetfulness or mere spite, decide to let them rot instead.  Things capable of changing are in potency to become different from what they are, presently, in act.  This is extremely common-sensical, and one would have to embrace a radically indeterminate view of the world or of change in order to get around it.  (Quantum Physics people sometimes take such a line, but the fact that the physics community has yet to give an account of what's going on in wave function collapse makes it difficult to take them seriously as philosophers.  Let alone the numerous obvious philosophical objections to a metaphysics of radical indeterminacy, which I won't get into here.)

IV.  So we have the distinction between act (what a thing is, actually, right now) and potency (what it can be made into or is capable of becoming, by whatever process).

V.  Now we define MOTION : Motion is simply any change from potency to act.  Motion is a specialized term for Aristotelians and Thomists.  It doesn't just mean "a change in place", it means any kind of change.  To Move, in the Aristotelian sense, is to realize some theretofore unrealized possibility for being or acting—to make what was possible, actual.  With those preliminary explanations out of the way, we can run through the argument.


The argument divides cleanly into two parts: first, a defense of the proposition that Whatever is moved is moved by another.  Second, a demonstration of the impossibility of an infinite chain of movers.  If we accept these two points, plus the minor premise (A), it follows that there must be an unmoved mover.  Let's look at the full argument in detail.

A. It is clear from experience that some things are in motion. (Pretty obvious.)

B. One thing can move another only insofar as the it (the mover) is in act. (I.e., non-existing things cannot be the cause of motion.)

C. Nothing can be moved unless it is in potency to whatever it's being moved toward.  (Since motion is defined above as a reduction from potency to act, this is pretty much tautological.)

D. A thing cannot be in potency and in act in the same respect at the same time.  (Since to be in potency to something is not yet to be that thing and to be in act is already to be that thing, this follows by the principle of non-contradiction.)

E. Therefore, nothing can, in the same respect at the same time be both mover and moved, i.e., nothing can move itself. (This follows cleanly from [D] and the definition of motion.)

F. Therefore, whatever is moved is moved by another. (This follows from E.  Note that thus far, the only really questionable premise is [B], which itself seems fairly commonsensical.)

G. Now, in any particular case, that which moves another thing is, in the act of moving another, either itself unmoved, or is moved.  (This is tautologous.)

H. However, since motion is the reduction from potency to act, if the mover itself changes in the process of moving another, we must say that it is also moved by another.

I.  Next, Aquinas says (without much further explanation) that in the absence of an unmoved mover we would have to postulate an infinite regress in the order of movers (A is actualized by B being actualized by C being actualized by D....).

J.  Now, if the infinite regress were temporally extended (like a series of dominos), so that A was actualized by B, which had earlier been actualized by C, etc., we would not have a problem.  Aquinas himself affirms the possibility of that sort of infinite regress later on in theSumma .  One need not postulate an absolute beginning for any sequential series of causes.  There's nothing irrational (setting aside empirical evidence to the contrary) about saying that things have been bouncing around in space for an eternity.

K.  So, what kind of infinite regress is Aquinas talking about here?  Let's look at a concrete example.  Suppose we have two big blocks of concrete floating through space.  A fast moving block hits a slow moving block.  As a result, the slow block speeds up and the fast block slows down.  In the first instance we would simply say that the first block moved the second.  But of course, the first block was likewise moved in the interaction (it slowed down).  So, as masters of newton's third law, we say that each object moved the other.  The slow one, by its inertia, conveyed an impulse to the fast one, and vice versa.  But let's focus in on the impulse itself.  We can think of the two blocks, at the point of their collision, as a single object, undergoing a change.  But obviously there's nothing intrinsic about two blocks placed next to each other that would lead to their springing apart a moment later (as these will).  In other words, if there's a reduction from potency to act in our object, we need to ask what is actualizing it.  What moves the blocks apart?

L.  Well, physics tells us that the transfer of impulses in the moment of the collision (which is not instantaneous, but let's focus on a single instant of it to keep things clean), is caused by the interactions of the electrons on the surfaces of the two blocks.  The Pauli exclusion principle, properly aligned orbitals, etc., lead to the distribution of a large-scale shift in electron clouds throughout both of the objects, and the qualities of this shift determine the elasticity of the collision.  Cool.  But let's stop at these electromagnetic interactions.  Let's focus in on a particular interaction between two electrons.  Based on my extremely limited amateur knowledge (forgive me!) the interaction can be described in either of two ways: as a feynman interaction involving the exchange of a force-carrying photon, or as the transmission of a change in the surrounding electromagnetic field, which transmits an impulse to the electron.  Either way, we've ended up with a quantized version of our original setup.  I.e., what's moving our composite two-block object is just another composite three-object system (electron, electron, field/boson).  And here we can repeat the process again.  An impulse is communicated from electron A to electron B, meaning that in some moment the two are both actualized.  So we take them as a single thing.  What causes this little electron interaction system?  What actualizes it?  Why does it behave this way?

M.  A brief aside.  Hopefully, we're starting to get a sense of the kind of regression Aquinas is interested in.  As already established, it isn't a regression of sequential changes; but it also (in case the reduction to electrons made it seem that way) isn't a regression to fundamental parts.  It's a reduction to motive principles, i.e. to the motive principle which leads a thing to change.

N.  Back to our electrons.  At this point when we ask "what moves the electrons/field/boson?" the inclination of the normal person would be to say either "the field" or "the laws of electromagnetism" (to which the field is going to have to be reduced at some point anyway).  But what *are* the laws of electromagnetism, anyway?  How do they (ostensibly) cause these concrete wave/particle things to change?  Are the laws of electromagnetism an independently existing reality, or a consistent feature of electromagnetic particles?  Let's assume we go with the latter (the former would lead us into weird subsistent-numerical-principles territory).  In this case, we have to say that particles actualize themselves, i.e. that they are the cause of their own particular way of acting, and that they elicit from themselves the properties observed in laboratories which are gathered in abstract under the name "laws of electromagnetism."  In other words, it seems that we have to say that there are some things that move (both transitively and intransitively) without being moved.

O.  But hold on, I thought we showed earlier that logically speaking, everything moved is moved by another, i.e., things just can't be the reason for their own actualization?  There must be a way of getting around this without admitting the existence of an unmoved mover.  Well, one option is to postulate another layer of interactions below the electrons we were talking about before.  But it seems clear that if we do that, we're just deferring the inevitable.  A second option is to create a closed explanatory loop.  But again, this kind of solution has been tried (at the very beginning, in our appeal to newton's third law), and when it is applied, the question of the principle of motion remains unanswered for the system as a whole.  Another option, and probably the most powerful remaining (also the most popular), is to deliberately draw a blank — to say that there is no motive principle.  Fields do not move themselves, and nothing else moves them.  They simply are that way.  

P.  There's a soothing nihilism to this last option, but it leaves a bizarre problem unsolved: what moves things to act when they do?  If they have natures, what actualizes those natures?  What motivates things to follow the "forces" and "laws" that we see consistently worked out on the smallest scales?  The question is not about the horizontal succession of movers, but the "vertical" succession: what orders things to these sorts of behaviors, these potentialities, these tendencies?  What gives the rule to nature, or bends nature to follow the rules we observe?  If these questions are to have any answer, it seems that we have to give in and accept the existence of an unmoved mover.


Q.  "Not so fast, Tommy boy! Suppose we go the pythagorean route, and postulate the existence of transcendental subsisting laws which order the world.  There's an unmoved mover for you.  How about that?  Let mathematical physics be our god."  At this point, Aquinas would be perfectly happy to accept some sort of quasi-pythagorean law-deity.  The task of winnowing down the precise attributes of this thing the existence of which we have just demonstrate is left to the next two dozen questions.  What sort of deity he proves it to be is a question that transcends the scope of this argument.

R.  "But you're saying there's some being that moves other things without itself changing.  Isn't that a contradiction?  Surely if something changes something else, it must itself change."  How does that follow exactly?  Oh wait, it doesn't.

S.  "But inertial motion requires no mover to explain it."  Actually, if we take an inertial object as our central illustration, the argument works out pretty much the same way.  An inertially moving object is either (1) perfectly inertial, in which case it isn't interacting with *anything* and there's no way of even saying that it's moving, because it's so totally isolated from the rest of the universe, in which case its "inertial motion" isn't really motion in any meaningful way, OR (2) imperfectly inertial, in which case its movement is detectable within some system, which means that we can take that system as a composite object in motion (in the technical sense outlined above), and pursue the line same line of thought as before.

T.  "But really, this is just an intellectual game.  You're insisting on creating a certain type of conceptual empty space, so that you can then demand that we fill it with God.  I refuse to acknowledge the necessity of this way of setting up the terms and concepts of the discussion."  Good objection!  But I'd like to hear a coherent alternative.  Then we could have a really interesting conversation.  As things stand, the only alternatives involve the denial of the reality of motion.  I.e., either things don't change and the appearance of change is an illusion cast by the mind in interpreting the world (i.e. parmenides/kant) or things don't change because when something ceases to be precisely what it was at a given moment, it ceases to exist altogether, and something new exists instead (Heraclitus and friends).  These are both, I confess, pretty awesome theories, and they're fun to think about, but they certainly can't be called reasonable theories, because what they defy is precisely the central rational habit of isolating and identifying principles.  But maybe there are alternative ways of undoing our argument that can't be reduced to these!  A world of possibilities awaits.

U.  Finally, one of the most common objections: "But the world doesn't need to have had a beginning.  How can you pretend to have demonstrated the existence of a prime mover if it's rationally indeterminable whether the world ever began to exist?"  Well, friend, actually if you read any of the above (granted, it's a little long), you would have learned that the "prime mover" argument has nothing to do with temporal succession at all.  Even if the world never had a beginning and had always existed, it would still hold just as well as it does.

24 June 2013

Seven Randomly Chosen Movies, Reviewed

(I took the list of movies I'd rated three stars or more on Netflix (about 650), assigned them numbers, and then generated seven random numbers on the interval.  The order has been randomized as well.)

Ikiru — Akira Kurosawa is famous for his samurai movies (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and so on), but this isn't that.  Ikiru follows an elderly civil servant after his diagnosis with terminal stomach cancer, as he struggles to find life in his last days.  It's one of those rare movies with both the courage necessary to make a big moral claim and the artistic skill necessary to back it up.  Probably most striking, it concludes by accusing its viewers (implicitly) of using the moral tale for a sentimental thrill and warns us against betraying its message.

Charlotte's Web — I haven't seen this cartoon since I was very small.  I remember it being very sad and very nice, and finding it very odd that there were talking pigs and spiders.

Minority Report — This is the only Tom Cruise movie I can think of that I really enjoyed.  What I remember enjoying about this film: recognizing Christopher Plummer in the old senator, the scene with the precog in which she helps Tom Cruise use an umbrella, the precog herself (who is she?), the user interface on the pre-crime computer system, the muted coloring of the film, the pacing.

Spider-Man — I haven't seen this since 2003.  Spider-Man was always my favorite superhero growing up.  I never liked Batman very much, because of his lack of powers and the darkness of Gotham in Tim Burton's vision of it.  Superman wasn't really around.  But I was a devoted watcher of the 90s Spider-Man cartoon series.  For a while I had an alarm on my wristwatch set for 3:30 p.m. to mark its beginning every schoolday.  Anyway, I really enjoyed the Tobey Maguire version.  It was exactly what it was supposed to be.  I remember wanting one of the sequels to involve Mysterio, since he was one of my favorite villains on the show, or Kingpin.  But for the trilogy the Goblin, Dr. Octopus and Venom were pretty great.  Venom especially...

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince — I saw this the day before I left Berlin for Zürich in July 2009.  It was the only movie I saw in Germany.  I remember thinking that the German dubbing substantially improved the acting quality over the usual performances, but being frustrated by the lack of punch in the film's climax.  Everything happened in a leisurely, melancholy way, when there ought to have been exciting music, and more screaming.

The Lion King — They say it's Hamlet.  It's not.  Jeremy Irons stars as Scar, the fratricidal usurper. Other surprises: James Earl Jones is Mufasa, Matthew Broderick is adult Simba, and Rowan Atkinson plays that bird.  Watch "be prepared," dubbed in German.

The Truman Show  It's the sort of thing I used to wonder about as a child: what if I'm the only real person and everyone else is just acting?  Interesting movie, fun to watch, and you can read moral quandaries into it if you feel like it.

23 June 2013


For my own purposes, a list of novels that may be worth reading in the near future:

The Magic Mountain
The Man Without Qualities
Group Portrait with a Lady
Infinite Jest
Gravity's Rainbow
Anna Karenina
Darkness at Noon

22 June 2013

Discretion in substantive editing.

A light editorial hand is nearly always more effective than a heavy one.  An experienced editor will recognize and not tamper with unusual figures of speech or idiomatic usage and will know when to make an editorial change and when simply to suggest it, whether to delete a repetition or an unnecessary recapitulation or simply to point it out to the author, and how to suggest tactfully that an expression may be inappropriate.  An author's own style should be respected, whether flamboyant or pedestrian.

Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, 2.48

21 June 2013

Hyperlinks and Allusions

The 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style says that navigation is central organizing principle of web-based publications.  "Readers will typically consult smaller pieces of content and will expect to be able to click through many parts of a work in a very short period of time."  One of my favorite exercises is to create a patchwork of references to excellent things, thereby appropriating (as it were) all the collected excellence of those others into one hub.  Hyperlinked text makes the fecundity of this sort of construction more readily apparent (since one's readers need not be in the know in order to appreciate the unmarked citations implicit in a text), and transforms a riddle-box piece of writing into one that deconstructs itself.


[The following is taken from Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia, as translated by E.F.N. Jephcott.]

A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph, check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, to deep 'in his thoughts', he forgets to say what he wants to say.

No improvement is too small or too trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations, each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigor will benefit other ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not to eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise one is suspected of poverty. 

The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too, the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of of words... utterly and completely, for better or worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer's expressions. This applies not only to combinations of words, but to the construction of whole forms. If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning point of his advancing ideas by starting with a 'But' at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.

The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction. suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style. Locke's platitudes are no justification for Hamann's obscurities.

Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree all out of proportion to their apparent importance. Affective involvement in the text, and vanity, tend to diminish all scruples. What is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole. 

The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all 'too beautiful', but ornamental, arts-and-crafts-y, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter at hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays his subject as well.

Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun, and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging toward them. The soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to call up another. Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence from the thinker, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, has his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store room, and it is hard in any case to part from old scraps. So he pushes them along in front him him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drive along idly, which may at an early stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.

09 June 2013

Thoughts on a Four More Movies

The Debt — This is one of those movies with a great cast that fails to live up to the potential of the people in it.  Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington.  First off, Chastain and Worthington have terrible accents.  They don't sound German when they're trying to sound German.  They don't sound like they're native Yiddish or Hebrew speakers either.  Chastain sounds American, and Worthington sounds like an Aussie, or both thinly veiled.  That both are very well-cast in their roles — as (respectively) the terrified government agent and the pining loner incapable of reaching out to others or sharing his burdens — is unfortunately obscured by the bad voice acting.  Alas.  In the future timeline, Wilkinson and Mirren do a much better job.  Mirren's part is easily the best-acted in the film.  Beyond these technical shortcomings, the film suffers from an absence of meat.  Too little happens, too little is revealed to excuse the amount of tension we're put through.  Split-timeline stories generally need a lot of complexity in order to prevent the future narrative from making the past boring.  There is one complication in this story, it comes out of nowhere, and its implications are not sufficiently weighed out in screen time to make us appreciate its significance.  The unfortunate thing is that in essence the plot, the actors, the camerawork, and everything else are amazing.  I could see this being a brilliant movie telling a gripping story.  But it doesn't.  It barely tells a story at all.  I'm told the Israeli original is better.  (2)

X-Men: First Class — It has been three years since I last saw the original X-Men trilogy.  I remember finding the first one lame, the second very enjoyable, and the third over-kill.  This film has a cast loaded with little bits of excellence.  The weakest point is Kevin Bacon, whose German accent is horrible.  Aside from that, we have the amazing Michael Fassbender as Magneto, that kid from About a Boy as Beast, Jennifer Lawrence (whom I honestly really dislike) as Mystique, January Jones as diamond-lady, etc. etc.  It's nice to just go around saying "oh, it's that guy" in this movie.  You'll do it every few minutes.  In terms of content and execution, the film puts us through the ever-present mutants-vs.-humans debate, peppered with anti-Bush and pro-gay-liberation dialogue here and there.  What places this film rather differently from the earlier ones is that here Charles Xavier is a young rich kid and not a Gandalf type.  His schemes are half-baked, and his arrogance is clearly evident.  This de-stabilizes the exterminate/integrate dichotomy at the core of the series.  Here "integration" is represented by a naive, coddled intellectual who just wants things to stay where they are, more or less, and is eager to help out the authorities in any way he can.  "Extermination" is also somewhat confused here, represented by both a former Nazi and the son of one of his victims.  How exactly Magneto's psychological genesis is supposed to make sense, I have no idea, but 3/4 through he completely switches attitudes, going from a vengence-obsessed Wolverine type to a genocidal maniac.  What?  Oddly enough, Fassbender's Irish accent starts breaking through just when his character switches sides, which makes the transformation even more difficult to watch.  On the whole, however, execution is very good.  It's a pleasure to watch this movie. (3)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine — I had not seen this film before today.  I remember it coming out and remember vaguely intending to see it at some point, but never got around to it.  Honestly, it's kind of lame.  Much of the film seems to be an excuse to show how veiny Hugh Jackman's muscles are, including one especially laughable scene in which he wakes up screaming, flexing his neck at the camera.  The brutality of the movie makes it unpleasant to watch at times, with hints of Watchmen sprinkled throughout, though obviously without a social commentary.  As always in this franchise, the story must return to the integrate/exterminate question.  This time, the villain is a non-mutant military guy, bent on developing a mutant super-weapon to use to destroy all the other mutants and save humanity.  Since most of the core plot elements here have been worked through in earlier X-Men movies, it feels like there should be more work done here to make the story interesting.  There isn't, though.  Pretty much exactly what you expect to happen happens, and then the movie ends. (2)

Days of Heaven — It's difficult to talk about Malick's movies.  Perhaps this is in part because he's half the movie snobs' golden boy, and everything he does is so obscure and indeterminate.  Well, Days of Heaven is the one that cemented his film career, and kept him famous for 20 years until he did The Thin Red Line.  It's a beautiful movie.  There are many, many shots here that are simply perfectly composed and could be excised and displayed independently. My favorite is probably one toward the beginning of a freight train going over a bridge against a blue sky, with a thin trail of smoke lingering behind it.  What about the writing?  The plot?  I'm not sure about the plot, really.  The story, as I've said somewhere before, is strongly reminiscent of the adventure of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, or with Abimalech, or both.  It was Abimalech, right?  Anyway, the best part is the little girl narrating, just like the best part of Badlands is Sissy Spacek's bizarre romantic account of the events we're watching.  There's not much I can say about it, though.  What does it all mean, if anything?  Unsure.  (4)

31 May 2013

A Few Quick-Fire Movie Reviews

1.  The Tree of Life:  A montage of highly stylized memories of childhood in Waco, Texas, recounted as a way of dealing with the problem of evil.  The trailer reflects perfectly what this movie is.  If you like the trailer, see the movie. It's difficult to class this movie, or to say anything about it without launching into a full-scale analysis.  It has the soul of Tarkovsky, and his profundity, though without the brilliant dialogue.  (5)

2.  Terminator: Salvation:  This fourth installment in the Terminator series takes us to the future for the first time.  John Connor is trying to save his father, Kyle Reese, from Skynet (the military computer that has destroyed most of the world).  Sam Worthington plays a resurrected murderer struggling to come to terms with his humanity in the face of his past.  Christian Bale as Connor is kind of lame, but Worthington's character is great.  Self-sacrifice, redemption, and humanity.  (4)

3.  Watchmen:  This is the darkest superhero movie I've seen, without a doubt.  Even in the Nolan trilogy, Batman is only barely tainted by the degradation of his times.  Here we see heroes deliberately atomizing Vietnamese civilians, opening fire on crowds of protesters, etc.  Narrated by Jackie Earle Haley (the little guy from Breaking Away!), who does an amazing job as Rorschach.  You will feel unclean when you're done with it.  It says a lot, though.  (3.5)

4.  Avatar:  Let me confess: I greatly enjoyed this movie.  I've seen it three times, now, and what gets me are two things, mainly.  First, that the Sam Worthington character is paralyzed below the waist.  I like that it was written that way, and I think about 1/3 of the genuine interest of the story derives from his disability.  The other main draw is Sigourney Weaver, who has a personality.  The whole becoming-one-of-the-people, tapping-into-the-world-spirit, achieving-natural-maturity complex doesn't do much for me.  What fun, though! (4)

5.  Somersault: After realizing that Sam Worthington was the best part of two movies I enjoyed a great deal, I looked him up, and found that his first critical success was this Australian movie from 2004.  In it, a teenage girl runs away from home to a ski town and enters into an ambiguous relationship with a local boy, played by Worthington.  The girl, Heidi, strategically uses her ability to connect with people to scrape by, being overly friendly with females and sleeping with males.  She is terrified and miserable.  Worthington does a great job opposite, playing a depressive farm boy who is incapable of connecting with anyone emotionally and seems, as a result, to suspect that he is homosexual.  The movie is saturated with understated emotional agony characteristic of early adulthood.  Several thoroughly un-erotic sex scenes throughout.  Good acting, good writing, good story.  (4)

6.  Irma Vep:  A Chinese actress is brought in for a French remake of a classic silent film.  The director is insane, the production is poorly managed, the costume designer makes awkward sexual advances on her.  Spoof of French cinematic culture with an awesome final scene. (3)

7.  Oblivion:  I wish I could forget this movie faster.  It's not even worth the words necessary to summarize it.  Clichéd, slow, stupid movie. (1)

8.  Star Trek: Into Darkness:  I was bothered by the large number of collateral deaths in this movie, almost all of which are treated as inconsequential in the face of a threat to the life of James Tiberius Kirk and his friends.  Still, fun, and Benedict Cumberbatch did well as expected.  (3)

9.  12 Monkeys:  Terry Gilliam movie.  Bruce Willis is a criminal in the future, given a chance for pardon if he goes on missions to the past to try and find the mysterious source of the deadly virus that wiped out almost all of humanity.  Slow, kind of stupid, Brad Pitt co-stars. (2)

10.  Last Holiday:  Alec Guinness is a farm equipment salesman who receives bad news from his doctor: he has a fatal disease and will drop dead within two or three months.  He decides to liquidate all his assets and spend his last days in a resort hotel.  There he meets a lot of snooty rich people, becomes entangled in their problems, flatly rejects all nonsense, and becomes (for a short while) universally adored.  This movie would be fittingly paired with Ikiru (5).  They have similar themes and are yet very different. (4)

11.  Smiley's People:  This is a mini-series adaptation of the spy novel by John Le Carre.  Worth watching simply for the sake of Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  Wonderful!  (3)

12.  Pom Poko:  A Studio Ghibli film, chronicling the struggle of a population of raccoon dogs in suburban Tokyo to prevent the development of a new residential complex in the middle of their shrinking forest territory.  Clever, funny, and sad.  The film covers a large amount of ground.  Brilliantly executed. (4)

16 May 2013

Thesis Defense Presentation

My interest in Michel Foucault goes back to a seminar I took in 2009 at Yale College. There we focused on three of the main figures of French Post-Structuralist theory: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. To my surprise, the Foucault I had expected to find in the course, based on the rumors which circulated with his name and the stigma associated with his “postmodern” label, seemed not to exist. Instead, I found Foucault a delight to read, and I gladly received from him his cynicism about the politics of sexual liberation, his insistence on treating medieval sources with respect, and his thoroughgoing rejection of Enlightenment philosophical pretensions. Nevertheless, Foucault and Derrida seemed to be sounding the death knell for western philosophy, and I knew that they had no answers to my deeper questions, and no future to offer me if I lingered with them.

Still, as I proceeded to more fruitful studies and became interested in Aquinas, Foucault lingered as a convenient point of contact with the theoretical background of the cultural left. Unlike many of his intellectual progeny and their disciples, Foucault tends to be careful and methodical in his criticism of historical knowledge structures, and does not mince his genealogical deconstructions with poorly thought out appeals to the liberal ideals of justice and equality. He is deeply anti-progressive, and ordinarily as critical of his allies as of his enemies. In short, I have always seen Foucault as the sort of nihilist I could trust to write clearly and frankly, without throwing around phantom ontologies or ethical principles, or deferring comprehension by cloaking himself in a haze of poeticisms. This has led me to return to him periodically when I feel a longing for a good antagonist. It was just such a desire for an intelligent antagonist that led me to write this thesis.

When I first began work on the thesis, the problem which interested me was very clear: between the writings of Michel Foucault and Thomas Aquinas there is a clean inversion of the functions by which order is generated and recognized. For Thomas, the root of all created order is the eternal Wisdom of the Godhead, which grasps all things perfectly in their beginning and end, and which governs them inwardly according to their nature and perfection. Just as Divine Wisdom generates the providential order of the universe, even so the perfection of the habit by which creatures come to know that order is a kind of Wisdom, though infinitely inferior and imperfect. Human wisdom, natural or supernatural, recovers from things the traces of Divinity left in them and, by observation and analogy, broadens its gaze to see the inescapable ordering of the world as it flows from and terminates in God. 

The Thomistic picture of intelligible order clashes cleanly with the portrait drawn by Foucault. Where in Aquinas the root of the actual order of things is the simplicity and perfection of divine providence, Foucault sees order as emerging through an utterly contingent series of brute facts — Facts without permanence or determinate meaning --facts which themselves emerge contingently as the result of the arrangement and production of shared symbols, modes of speaking, social structures, forms of experience, and power relations. And, instead of tending toward some ultimate union with the Eternal, Foucault sees the order of the world as in constant flux, without any direction or guiding intention. The one who grasps most this profusion of things and their order is not “Wise” for Foucault, but is on the contrary most likely to be duped into believing that order is a natural and intrinsic feature of things, and that any particular contingency of history actually hides an eternal truth. “Wisdom”, instead of being a divine gift, is an instrument of power by which existing modes of order and dominance are reinforced through the sacralization of basic presuppositions about the world. In opposition to this attitude, Foucault sets up an alternative ideal, modeled off of his great hero Friedrich Nietzsche. If Wisdom is duped by finding in historical accidents reason to speculate about eternity, then Foucault chooses to embrace a kind of Madness which insists on the irreducibility of historical contingencies and employs them constantly to thwart dominant modes of understanding and ordering.

This fairly straightforward set of contrasts formed the foundation for my project: Foucault’s heroization of madness terminates in a kind of Heraclitean nihilism, and Aquinas’s devotion to Wisdom terminates in the beatific vision of the Divine Essence. A contrast of this variety would be best done in a theological context, because only the full vision of St. Thomas’s theological ordering of the world would allow for Madness and Wisdom to reveal their perfect antagonism.

However, I wanted the thesis to be a dialectical exercise and not simply the exposition of a neat contrast. If my treatment of Foucault and Aquinas on the basis and consummation of intelligibility was to have a dialectical character, it would need to involve the engagement of the two thinkers with each other. At this point the real difficulties emerge. Foucault and Aquinas both have convenient “trap door” mechanisms by which each can dispose of the other without deep engagement. For Foucault, there are two easy options: first, to historicize Aquinas and treat his thought as an object to be genealogized and deconstructed; second, to neuter the attacks of the Thomist by showing how they emerge from various power structures and work as regulative functions for the exclusion of alien forms of speech and thought. For Aquinas, it is easy to see Foucault’s errors as flowing from an excessively pessimistic view of human nature, or from the blindness of the intellect which follows from moral depravity so extreme as to lead him to reject first principles and to attempt to transform the natural aptitude of the mind to truth into a necessary and universal expression of malice. 

Though these responses are interesting and revealing they do not amount to any sort of real dialogue. So the primary methodological question for this project becomes: Is it possible for Aquinas and Foucault to speak to each other? How would such a dialogue proceed? Can any common ground be found between them? Can they learn from each other? Since these questions are closely tied to the original problem about the basis and consummation of intelligibility in human acts of knowing, I was able to use them to provide a dialectical structure for the thesis. Instead of merely comparing Foucault and Aquinas, the goal became to perform the groundwork for a positive intellectual engagement between the two, and to orient them so as to respond adequately to each other. Since Foucault is already historically conscious and writes at several points about late medieval thought, the brunt of the work lay in preparing a Thomistic response to Foucault, a response which managed to show how a Thomist might meet Foucault’s objections at their level without falling victim to them. To this end it was necessary to present Foucault and his background in great detail, and then provide an opposed account of things which navigated all his legitimate concerns and targeted his key errors, while indicating how the strong points of Foucault’s critique of Thomistic ontology can be integrated into an account of philosophical praxis and the mechanics of tradition without destabilizing or delegitimizing the synthesis of Christian truth provided by Aquinas. 

In order to understand Foucault’s work, it is important to see his roots in the development of western thought since Descartes. The Cartesian reorientation of European philosophy introduced two thematic trends in early modern thought: first, a preference for skeptical methodologies that attempt do away with prejudice and reduce knowledge to a skeleton of absolutes. Second, the prioritization of the evidence of reflective self-consciousness over the evidence of experience, custom, and tradition. 

Together, these trends culminate in the critical synthesis of Immanuel Kant. Cartesian philosophical methodology creates a problem: how is the knowing subject to regain access to knowledge of the external world when the content of experience is capable of being doubted? Given the Cartesian prioritization of the evidence of mental states, or "clear and distinct ideas", as he calls them, Kant's solution to the problem of our knowledge of the external world is quite clever. He performs a grand metaphysical shift, choosing to locate the basis of the order, unity, and existence of the world in universal synthetic functions of the mind. By locating the basis of our knowledge in the mind instead of in transcendental, mind-independent objects, Kant circumvents the Cartesian problem: our knowledge of reality is certain because reality as known by the mind is constituted by our act of knowing it. 

In his early work, Friedrich Nietzsche (who wrote about a century after Kant) seizes upon the Kantian account of the genesis of universal judgments about the world and takes it a step further, claiming that these mind-imposed syntheses of sensory particulars come at the cost of the erasure of the particularity and reality of things. In other words, the philosophical ideal of an eternal, universal truth, identified with God since at least the time of Plato, is a delusion by which man strips away the vitality and fecundity of the sensory world and replaces it with an empty, perspective-less, sterile concept of the "Good". The more settled we are in our idea of truth, the more immune we become to the Dionysian chaos of reality. Later on in his career, Nietzsche develops his critique of Truth into a historical reconstruction of the genesis of Christian ethics, which he calls a Genealogy of Morality. The history of Christianity, he says, is the history of a struggle between the weak and the strong, in which the weak have learned to dominate by a clever trick. Christianity makes weakness out to be morally superior, and blames the naturally strong for their excellence. This transvaluation of values leads the west deeper and deeper into nihilism, as the positive expression of power and dominance becomes more carefully denied and negated by the morality of the weak. 

Many of Nietzsche's themes and attitudes are taken up in the early 20th century by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger provides a phenomenological response to the old Cartesian problem, suggesting that Descartes's way of describing reality and ordering philosophical inquiry is fundamentally incorrect. Instead, he proposes an ontology based on the average everyday experience of things: interested, bound up in environments, occupied by particular concerns, and ordered through the general care we have for things, others, and ourselves. Instead of attempting to undo the natural circularity of human understanding, whereby we project prejudicial expectations onto reality and then recover them in experience, Heidegger suggests that the task of the Philosopher is to come to terms with the finitude and contingency of Human Being, to face our anxiety about the indeterminacy and meaninglessness of existence, and settle upon the an authentic recognition of our responsibility for determining by choice the meaning of reality. Becoming thoroughly open to the contingency and finitude of our prejudices amounts, according to Heidegger, to undoing of the tradition of western metaphysics, which has always attempted to cover up the fundamental Question of the Meaning of Being by establishing arbitrary philosophical principles as limits to thought, and hiding behind them. (For example, the principle of non-contradiction, or the principle of sufficient reason.)

Now we turn to Foucault. Foucault's career can be divided into two or three periods, depending on one's scrupulosity, but given the shortness of time, I will focus instead on some aspects of his work on Madness. Foucault's first and longest work, published in 1961, was a History of Madness from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. 

Foucault uses his book to show that various forms of behavior, identities, and ways of experiencing the world classed as "Madness" or "Unreason" during the period covered are in fact wildly divergent. "Madness" is the product of a series of historical exclusions by which a limit is placed on the acceptable moral or intellectual behavior of individuals in society. It develops spontaneously out of ethical and theological theories, political choices, and philosophical ideas, to the extent that the essence of Madness can be seen to have been produced by the mores and convictions of each period, as a kind of anti-norm encircling society and collecting everyone who diverged too far from what was seen as proper. 

Foucault's method for analyzing the production of madness is primarily documentary, covering the various periods of his research as independent and self-contained epistemic worlds, attempting to tease the core ideas of each period out of the testimony of diagnostic manuals, legal codes, medical theories, and theological works, rather than subjecting them to a progressive narrative or imposing modern psychological categories upon supposedly "undeveloped" or "primitive" descriptions.

Given the function of Madness as a limit-experience of social and intellectual order, Foucault is interested in the possibility of the irruption of that limiting population into the ordered universe which they enclose. Throughout the modern period madness is silenced and concealed, but what if the mad were given a new voice? What if rather than being morally stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned, a new possibility for madness arose, in which insanity itself stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned sanity, in which the ordered rationality of civil society were brought before the judgment seat of chaos? Such a possibility, Foucault believes, is revealed in the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, the Marquis de Sade, and Francisco Goya. These four heroes transcend the limits of rationality and return to preach the gospel of chaos which they have heard whispered in the outer darkness.

But what is this gospel of chaos? It is certainly not mere nihilism. Rather, it is the disclosure of the arbitrariness and contingency of dominant modes of rationality--the revelation of the possibility of a new truth, a different reality--an invitation to consider the functions by which this order is produced and sustained, to see things for what they are without attempting to reduce them to a hidden eternity.

Foucault's lyrical description of these new madmen (at the end of the History of Madness) forms, in a way, the cornerstone of much of his life's work, and a key to his authorial self-understanding. Foucault is a genealogist in the mode of Nietzsche: a writer of histories which show the dirty roots of our "eternal" truths and the contingency of our absolute principles, which invite us to ask again what the value of this or that intellectual structure is, what interests produce and perpetuate the various "obvious" features of our everyday reality. But his contact with the groundlessness of our everyday attitude toward the world does not serve an ethical function as it might in Sartre or Heidegger: it does not pave the way for some new and more authentic choice of self: Foucault prefers in his analyses to perpetually defer all reduction to a transcendental value, all determination of absolute meaning. This makes him, in a way, considerably more satisfying than any of the so-called Existentialist philosophers, who pretend that one can conjure up meaning for one's life by mere fiat in the face of moral nihilism and absurdity.

Instead of putting his genealogical activity to an ethical use, Foucault embraces the creative play of possibilities, always seeking out new limit-experiences and fringe possibilities in the prevailing rational norms of his time and place. He is a gleeful rebel in every company, always thwarting, overturning, and smashing conceptual idols and then vanishing. One can never quite track down his own position, never quite find his philosophical abode so as to challenge him on his own turf. He is something like Rumplestiltskin, a mythical sprite who appears and vanishes at random, and whose power cannot be broken so long as his true name is unknown.

So much for Foucault and his predecessors. Having come to terms, roughly at least, with the basic attitude and idea of Foucauldian genealogy, you will recall that our main task was to orient St. Thomas's account of intelligible order toward Foucault so as to provide the basis of a viable reply to him. There are three central issues to be addressed: first, the matter of intellectual foundations and the principles of human knowledge; second, the development of knowledge structures in the individual; third, the problem of history and the role of contingency and power in the transmission of ideas.

On the face of things, any Thomistic response to Foucault seems to fall victim to the following dilemma: the Thomist must either base his ontology on some self-evident first principle in the Cartesian fashion, and be accused of setting up arbitrary limits to thought, or he must present his ontology as a ready whole and be accused of simple dogmatism. There seems to be no good option.

In order to resolve the dilemma, we need to provide a non-foundationalist defense of intellectual first principles. The key principle we will reference is the law of non-contradiction, taken as a metaphysical rule: two contradictory states of affairs cannot exist in the same respect at the same time. Our question, then, is this: how does the mind know this principle (with what certainty, on what evidence)? And in what way does it form the basis of our knowledge of the world? 

Were we foundationalists, we would approach the principle of non-contradiction as a self-evident proposition, the clarity and distinctness of which so guaranteed its truth that it was incapable of doubt. This is an inadequate defense, however, because it fundamentally misses the relevance and basis of the principle of non-contradiction in the intellectual life of the human being. No one, as an infant, encounters non-contradiction as an intellectual primitive from which they build up a progressively more complex system of thought. Rather, the rule serves as a habitual, unexamined guarantor of the possibility of experiencing things determinately and referencing them in thought and speech. Thus Thomas speaks of the habit of first principles, a habit which we become aware of only late in our studies when we have reached a high level of abstraction. 

Still, the habitual and ordinarily unexamined character of the principle of non-contradiction (or its allies, the belief in essences stability of individual substances) does not simply make it a blind prejudice. When examined, the prejudice proves to be indispensable. Why? Suppose for a moment that the principle of non-contradiction were invalid as a metaphysically -- in other words, that an apple could be both all red and all green at the same time in the same respect. What would follow? Well, if the PNC were invalid, then it would be impossible to specify any determinate thing. Any mental reference, word, or idea we might have, however clear, could not be said to fix on something in reality. This apple, being both red and green, would not have a specifiable color. It needn't stop there, either. The apple need not only be an apple. It would also be Julius Caesar, and a sack of flour, and the sensation you get when you look down from a great height. Very quickly, our apple has vanished under the weight of its plurality of incompatible attributes. The apple becomes all things, and ceases to exist.

Whatever may happen to our apple in this case, it is clear that we can no longer meaningfully speak about it or think about it. It eludes us, being everything and nothing, and ceases to be a possible object of thought. Were we to apply this rejection of non-contradiction to everything, and not just the apple, speech itself would become impossible, and knowledge would fail. There would be nothing.

And so, we find that this metaphysical first principle is practically necessary, because it undergirds and makes possible the rational and discursive activities at the basis of human life, but also upon examination, that its basis lies not in the absolute self-certainty of the intellect, grasping an eternal truth, but in the aptitude of the human person as an intellectual substance to know and speak about things. It is by virtue of that aptitude that the law of non-contradiction is available to us. And its emergence as an explicit rule at the basis of speculative philosophy comes through experience and observation and engagement with the world, not a shuttered, skeptical self-examination. 

The second issue of difficulty to the Thomist is the problem of the contingent roots of knowledge structures in human learning. In other words, given the prejudicial influence of one's historical and cultural situation and the resulting slant on one's thought, does it not inevitably follow that every individual is a slave to historical contingencies, and that any claim to ahistorical knowledge merely involves the illegitimate elevation of some contingent fact to the status of a necessity? Given our earlier denial of the usefulness of intellectual first principles in grounding a system of knowledge, this does indeed seem to be a grave difficulty. The key to eliminating it is to return to the question of what knowledge is and the mechanics of knowledge acquisition. It is true that cultural conditions prejudicially dispose us to investigate certain objects and to look at them under certain aspects, but prejudice does not create knowledge. It merely guides the process of knowledge acquisition. Knowledge is caused by the apprehension of the essences of things, and the reception of those essences by the mind. Consequently whatever one's prejudices, the actuality of things is a natural corrective for prejudicial errors. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between two different orders of intelligibility. On one hand there is an accidentally subordinated series of mental states: imperfect conceptions of a thing give way to better ones as experience fills out one's notion of it. In this order, which St. Thomas calls the order of discovery, an early error need not have any bearing on the later state of one's knowledge. However, there is another way of describing knowledge: according to an essentially subordinated series of events or mental states, such that the invalidity of any one causes the corruption of the rest. For example, a faulty inference in a syllogism corrupts the validity of its conclusions, or a bad metaphysical principle will corrupt the rest of one's subsequent analysis. It is in light of this order, called the order of judgment, that St. Thomas says at the beginning of the De Ente et Essentia, that a small error in the beginning is a great one in the end.

The third and final difficulty for the Thomist (with which I will conclude this presentation) is the problem of history and contingency in the transmission of ideas. Here we might pose a dilemma similar to the one proposed in our discussion of first principles: on one hand, the Thomist can concede to Foucault that the emergence and transmission of knowledge is governed by contingent power dynamics which are frequently impersonal and can be traced to practical political and social interests. In this case, it seems impossible to trust tradition, and the Thomistic synthesis collapses. Or, on the other hand, one could suggest that either the whole world or at least the Church is a kind of pure vessel, preserved from all worldliness and corruption so that the transmission of philosophical and theological doctrine is never motivated by anything other than a graced love of God and desire for the salvation of souls. This option has the disadvantage of being historically false on an epic scale.

The difficulty vanishes when we consider the mode by which knowledge is transmitted, according to St. Thomas. He describes pedagogy among humans not as the implantation of ideas in new minds by learned ones, but as a practice by which we direct each other toward the essences of things and guide each other in the choice of aspects under which to perceive reality. If genuine knowledge had to be transmitted by a kind of direct implantation from one person to another, then the individual corruption of participants in any tradition of knowledge would post a serious problem for the reliability of the knowledge conveyed in that tradition. But since pedagogy is not directly the cause of our knowledge of things, but merely an instrument by which we are directed toward them, the imperfection of the instruments of tradition is of little concern. This is even clearer in the transmission of the faith, since the light of faith is given directly by God to enable the individual to receive the truth preached to him, and the faith of the minister is not necessary for the efficacy of the gospel.

To conclude: what is the value of Foucault for the Thomist? Where should this conversation go next? I believe that, aside from being an essential guide to the development of the cultural left in America, Foucault is most useful as a purveyor of critical methodology. His genealogical analyses show us how best to deflate the pretensions of our opponents, especially in a naively progressivist society like our own. Furthermore, he is an intelligent interlocutor against which to hone one's thought. But perhaps best of all, an engagement with Foucault forces the Thomist to turn his tools toward the resolution of historical difficulties, and in a way that tends to neutralize the threat of Hegelian dialectics from rival theological schools.