Sunday, January 6, 2013

Some thoughts on fundamentals.

1. The Kantian critique of metaphysics is overzealous in its skepticism and consequently loses the world. But isn't the basic question of Kant's deduction of the categories a good one? He asks: what are the fundamental categories of metaphysics, what is their intellectual genealogy, and what are their rights? His approach is very clever and commensurate with his "copernican revolution", but the excessive investment in a priori mental structures renders it less interesting. One can easily destroy Kant's solutions (at least in their particulars) by pushing at the Table of Categories. Why these twelve and not others? But even supposing we were to abandon Kant's categorical framework, the fundamental problem seems to stick: certain concepts are deduced in the process of doing metaphysics, because the things they name are necessary for us to be capable of talking about or conceiving of being at all. So, in the order of discovery, essence or what-ness occurs relatively early on (for Aristotle anyway). But we speak of essences because they solve a particular problem. The question, then, is whether once we have got them, we don't abuse essences and tacitly make them significantly more than was warranted at their point of origin. The quid juris tends to be left unasked, as we move beyond primitive questions into advanced problems. This is dangerous, especially in the context of dogmatics.

2. There are two modes of philosophical analysis: one attempts to discern among several kinds of questioning which has has as its object the primary determinant of truth/being, the other attempts to work out conceptual puzzles within an existing intellectual edifice. Philosophers who think only the former kind of activity counts as philosophy, will tend to see a massive gap in the history of philosophy between the stoics and the moderns. Obviously they're wrong, because the work of the medievals, and especially the scholastics, is philosophically very rich and powerful. However, there is something correct about the prioritization of that first style of philosophy over the second, and we can see it in any attempt at conversation between certain scholastic and modern/post-modern philosophers. A dialogue between Aquinas and Kant would be unproductive, not simply because of their disagreement on most issues of fundamental importance, but primarily because the order of questioning differs so much between the two. For Kant, the fundamental task of the philosopher is to find out what can be known and uncover the architectonics of possible knowledge. For Aquinas, the fundamental task of the philosopher is to grasp the most abstract kernel at the heart of all things and to know what it is to be. People often overemphasize the "turn to the subject" that divides modern philosophy from its antecedents, but the best modern philosophers are always ready to reexamine the bases of knowledge and the orientation of philosophy (modern philosophy as determined by the anxiety of influence), where medievals generally are not.  This makes conversation with medievals more difficult in some ways than conversation with moderns, but this distinction may not be defensible at all.


  1. The "quid juris" point about essence reminds me of Chastek's discussion of the importance of discovering metaphysics anew in each generation.

  2. I think that's right. Authority and Philosophy are always in tension, and one needs to work out their relationship carefully.