The One and the Many
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The One and the Many

A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics

W. Norris Clarke

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eBook - ePub

The One and the Many

A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics

W. Norris Clarke

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When it is taught today, metaphysics is often presented as a fragmented view of philosophy that ignores the fundamental issues of its classical precedents. Eschewing these postmodern approaches, W. Norris Clarke finds an integrated vision of reality in the wisdom of Aquinas and here offers a contemporary version of systematic metaphysics in the Thomistic tradition. The One and the Many presents metaphysics as an integrated whole which draws on Aquinas' themes, structure, and insight without attempting to summarize his work. Although its primary inspiration is the philosophy of St. Thomas himself, it also takes into account significant contributions not only of later philosophers but also of those developments in modern science that have philosophical bearing, from the Big Bang to evolution.

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CHAPTER ONE
What Is Metaphysics and Why Do It?
I. ROLE OF PHILOSOPHY AND HOW METAPHYSICS FITS INTO IT
Since every philosopher to some extent, especially in our age of pluralism, works out of a personal view of what the philosophical enterprise is all about, let me lay out first how I understand the philosophical project as a whole and then how metaphysics fits into it. Philosophy is the critically reflective, systematically articulated attempt to illumine our human experience in depth and set it in a vision of the whole. Thus, it is not primarily a search for new experience or new facts—although some may turn up along the way—but a second-level enterprise, so to speak, where we take the experience (including the vicarious experience of others) and data we already have and try to illumine them in depth, i.e., to search out their ultimate grounding or necessary conditions of possibility, their ultimate meaning, and their connections with the rest of reality. And although particular areas of philosophy will focus on particular domains of our experience, e.g., philosophical anthropology on human beings, philosophy of art on the domain of human art, etc., the philosophical eye will always look further to discover how this particular domain fits into an integrated vision of the universe as a whole. This, at least, is what philosophy is all about according to St. Thomas and the classical tradition as a whole, from Plato on.
Role of metaphysics. Metaphysics fits into the overall project of philosophy as its innermost ground, as that part which focuses its inquiry explicitly on the vision of the whole, that is, what is common to all real beings and what constitutes their connectedness to the universe as a meaningful whole. It is the ultimate framework or horizon of inquiry, into which all other investigations, including all the sciences, fit as partial perspectives. Its work will then be to try to discern the great universal properties, constitutive principles, and governing laws of all that is real, in a word, the laws of intelligibility of being as such, including how all real beings interrelate to form an intelligible whole, that is, a universe (the term “universe” comes from the Latin universum, which means “turned toward unity”). This is the meaning of the ancient classical definition of metaphysics descending from Aristotle—the first to explicitly define metaphysics—namely, “Metaphysics is the study of being qua being” or being as such. Spelled out, this means the study of all beings precisely insofar as they are real, which means for St. Thomas actually existent. It also includes the whole realm of mental beings of various kinds, such as possibles, abstractions, mathematical and logical entities, theoretical and imaginative constructions, etc., precisely insofar as their very being consists in their being-thought-about by the activity of real minds.
In practice, however, we humans cannot directly inspect all beings as immediately accessible to our experience. We have to start, therefore, with where we are, with what is accessible to us within the limited horizon of our experience, namely, this material cosmos that is our present home, including ourselves. From the study of this universe, insofar as it is open to our experience, we shall first derive the general properties, laws, and principles governing all the beings of our experience as a community of many different, changing, and finite (limited) beings. From this we shall be able (1) to discern a very small number of absolutely universal principles applying to all real beings as such, in any possible universe, because otherwise they would be simply unintelligible; (2) to argue from the necessary conditions of intelligibility of our own changing and finite cosmos to an Ultimate Source or Cause, beyond our experience, of all limited beings whatsoever—the philosophical description of what we call “God.”
The philosophical ascent of the human mind to this Ultimate Reality belongs intrinsically to the project of metaphysics, as the final capstone of the intelligibility, unity, and meaningfulness of the whole universe of real being. But because of its importance and complexity, it is often treated as a separate treatise of its own, called “philosophy of God,” “natural theology,” or the like. This makes sense in itself, but because the majority of students do not get the chance to take such a separate course, we have included the essentials of such a natural conclusion to metaphysics in this text.
II. DISTINCTION OF METAPHYSICS FROM RELIGION AND THEOLOGY
Although the scope of inquiry of metaphysics is universal, embracing all being, its method of investigation is strictly philosophical, i.e., drawing on the resources of natural reason alone as applied to our common human experience, without taking either its data or its conclusions from any higher source of wisdom transcending the human, such as divine revelation and its theological explication. Should the metaphysician as a personal thinker, however, judge these to be authentic, they should be respected; and occasionally they can be sources of new illumination on the deeper meaning of the natural order itself, so as to stimulate natural reason to look more deeply into our human experience to discern what it may have overlooked before. This is to respect the great guiding principle of medieval Christian thinkers, who were both theologians and philosophers, namely, that God has spoken to us in two great books: the Book of Nature, where created things speak to us directly, and the Book of Revelation, where God himself reveals to us his own inner nature and his free gifts and special plans for humanity. These two books, both written by the same Author, cannot contradict each other; if there is an apparent contradiction, either one side or the other, natural reason or theological interpretation of the revelation, has made an error, and each possibility must be reexamined more carefully.
Metaphysics also differs from religion, in that the former is a purely intellectual or speculative quest for wisdom about the meaning of the universe, whereas the latter involves a response of the heart and practical commitment of the whole person to live according to the plan of, and seek union with, what one takes to be Ultimate Reality.
III. INCOMPLETENESS OF ALL METAPHYSICAL EXPRESSION
Metaphysics done by human beings is necessarily tied in its expression to limited human concepts and linguistic frameworks, which are themselves rooted in the intellectual and cultural development of the societies out of which they grew. But these are never complete, totally adequate, or the only possible ways of describing or explaining the inexhaustible richness of reality. Hence, although metaphysicians can indeed discover universal metaphysical truths transcending all times and cultures, the conceptual-linguistic expression of what they have discovered will always have to resign itself to being incomplete, falling short of the fullness of the real, in a word, perspectival, seen from within the resources of thinking, speaking, imagining, and feeling of the metaphysician’s own culture in its situation in human history. Hence no definitive, exhaustively adequate expression of metaphysics for all times and cultures is humanly possible. But metaphysicians are not locked into their own cultures and languages; they can learn from each other, especially in an age of universal communication like our own, and develop more sensitive and sophisticated conceptual and linguistic tools as they go along if they have the humility to learn from others.
A metaphysics, therefore, done by human beings like ourselves must be humble. But what it can give us, if we go about it carefully and systematically, is a deeper understanding and appreciation of the universe in its unity-in-diversity and its meaningfulness. And to be fully human it is good for us to make the effort to expand our minds to the ultimate horizon of being; the effort itself is deeply enriching, rewarding, and consciousness-expanding.
IV. OBJECTIONS AGAINST THE LEGITIMACY OF METAPHYSICS
Many modern, and especially contemporary, philosophers deny the legitimacy of metaphysics, either because for them it is not a meaningful inquiry at all, since it has no distinctive subject matter, or because it is not possible for human minds to achieve it. Let us look at some of the most common objections.
1. No distinctive subject matter. Every distinct branch of knowledge must study some particular class of things, with some observable trait that sets them off from other things, like physics, biology, psychology, theology, etc. Metaphysics claims to study all things at once. But being is no distinguishing trait, since all have it; it is empty conceptually and tells us nothing in particular. I can’t point to it and say, “Here is being, and there is not.”
Response. Metaphysics does not have a distinctive subject matter, since it treats of all beings, but it does have a distinctive point of view from which it studies them. It considers in them only their most fundamental attribute of being itself and the properties and laws which they have in common with all beings, or all changing and finite beings, as these beings exist in the community of other existent beings, acting and interacting with each other to form the universe in which we are all plunged.
This fundamental dimension of being itself, of the actual existence of what they are studying, is taken for granted by all other branches of knowledge, which then go on to study what it is and how it works. But just because something is taken for granted does not mean that it is unimportant. This is just what metaphysics, and it alone, aims to do: to draw into the explicit light of reflection what all other human inquiry takes for granted or leaves implicit—the foundation of actual existence upon which all else is built and without which all subject matter vanishes into the darkness of nonbeing, of what is not. Martin Heidegger, the great contemporary German metaphysician—not himself a Thomist at all—complained that the whole of Western metaphysics, from Plato on, lapsed into a “forgetfulness of being,” not of what things are, their essences, but of the radical fact that they are at all, standing out from nothingness and shining forth to us.
One of the few exceptions is the “existential metaphysics” of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), which Heidegger never came to know in any depth and to which we are now going to introduce you. This “radical” (in its original sense of going to the roots = radices in Latin) investigation is something that needs doing at least once in your intellectual life. This is your chance now. But it cannot be done by any method of empirical observation or scientific method based on quantitative measuring techniques formulated in mathematical terms, but only by its own proper method of reflective analysis and insight into the necessary conditions of intelligibility of being as such, and finally coming to grips with the most fundamental question of all: “How come there is a real universe at all?”
2. We, as parts of the Whole, cannot comprehend the Whole. Some philosophers say that it is impossible for human beings to do metaphysics, because each one of us is only a small finite part of the whole of reality and it is impossible for the part to comprehend the whole of which it is a part. To do so it would have to step out of the whole or be the maker of it like God. Since this is impossible, we must be content to take the universe of reality as a whole for granted and direct our attention to what the parts are like inside it and how they operate and fit together. Hence, questions about reality as a whole, about existence as such, e.g., “How come there is a universe at all?” are either meaningless, or, as some are willing to admit, meaningful in themselves and enriching to think about as ultimate mysteries, but incapable of any human answer. (See, for example, Milton Munitz, The Mystery of Existence, New York, 1965. So, too, Bertrand Russell, when pushed back to this point by Father Frederick Copleston in their famous BBC debate, answered impatiently, “The universe just is, that’s all. Explanation starts from there.”)
Response. But this is precisely the wonder and paradox of the spiritual intellect we all possess. Because it is by nature ordered to being as such as its proper object, it is open to the entire horizon of being without restriction, and so can think about it as a whole and about our own place in it, can encompass it in a certain sense in its own thought—not in detail, of course, but in its broad outlines—which other non-intelligent beings in the universe cannot do. Hence, by the very fact that we can raise the question about being as a whole, the human person is not just a part of the universe but a whole, within the Whole. Every person endowed with intelligence is thus, at least implicitly, a point of view on the whole universe. This is an essential part of our dignity as images of God. This course is aimed at making this implicit capacity in all of us explicitly conscious and reflective. It is appropriate, therefore, to begin our study by stirring up that sense of wonder at what Heidegger has called “the wonder of all wonders, that anything exists at all.”
3. Objections to metaphysics from modern restrictive theories of knowledge. The largest number of objectors to the possibility of metaphysics come from modern philosophers since Hume and Kant, based on epistemological limitations on the scope of our human knowledge. These can be divided into three very general categories: empiricism, Kantianism, including its more recent Neo-Kantian versions, and relativism in all its various forms (historical, etc.).
Empiricism. This type of thinking denies we can know anything that is not derived directly from some sense experience (strict empiricism of the Humean type—David Hume, 1711–76), or at least anything reaching beyond the range of our human experience in the widest sense. Thus we are never justified in arguing by intellectual inference from something within our experience to some cause or ground transcending our experience, such as God, a spiritual soul that is the root of our acts of intelligence, metaphysical co-principles that are constitutive—but not experienceable—components of every finite and changing being, such as essence/existence, matter/form, substance, potentiality, etc.
Response. One central flaw in all such theories of knowing is that they are in principle unable to do justice to the very subject or self that is asking the questions, since this is at the root of every conscious sense experience and quest for understanding, but not out in front of our senses as an external object to be sensed by them. In a word, the inner world vanishes in its very attempt to understand the outer world. The empiricist way of thinking also cripples the age-old natural longing of the human mind to understand, make sense of, its direct experience in terms of deeper causes not directly accessible to us. The human mind cannot be satisfied to operate only within this straightjacket of an arbitrarily restrictive epistemology.
Kantianism. Stemming from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who maintained we can never know reality in itself, “things-in-themselves” (which he called noumena, that which would be knowable by a perfect, creative mind—nous), but only things as they affect us, appear to us (phenomena) within our consciousness. Things in the real world do act upon us, but what they reveal of themselves is only a “sense manifold,” or jumble of sense image without intelligible order, form, structure. We are the ones who impose form and order and intelligibility on the content of our sense experience, drawing on the a priori forms of intelligibility—plus the a priori sense forms of space and time—which are innate in all human minds. This is the “Copernican revolution” of which Kant was so proud: it is not the world that informs us, molds our minds to conform to it; it is our minds which impose intelligibility—forms, structures, order, etc.—on the world. It is we who are makers of the world as intelligible. Hence we do not think the world as it is, as everyone took for granted before Kant, but the world is as we cannot help but think it. It follows that any possibility of doing metaphysics—the study of real being with its intrinsic properties, laws, etc.—is cut off at the root for us human beings, who are locked without escape within the walls of our own minds. We can indeed show that the human mind naturally tends to think of God as the unifying cause of this world, but this gives us no right at all to affirm this as objectively true in the real world outside of our thought. Thus both philosophical theism as well as atheism are cut off at the root, and the way is left open for the inner experience of the moral imperative and subjective religious experience.
In later forms of Neo-Kantianism, we still impose intelligibility on the world from within our own a priori’s; but these a priori forms are no longer universal and unchanging for all human minds; they are a priori’s of culture and of language imprinted in us by the society in which we are brought up; they are neither universal for all humans nor unchanging down the ages, but variable and mutable as history goes on. Various relativisms of culture and history result.
Response. One of the central flaws in Kant’s theory of knowledge is that he has blown up the bridge of action by which real beings manifest their natures to our cognitive receiving sets. He admits that things in themselves act on us, on our senses; but he insists that such action reveals nothing intelligible about these beings, nothing about their natures in themselves, only an unordered, unstructured sense manifold that we have to order and structure from within ourselves. But...

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