Notes on Kant and Aquinas Against Anselm

“Thus when I think a thing, through whichever and however many predicates I like (even in its thoroughgoing determination), not the least bit gets added to the thing when I posit in addition that this thing is. For otherwise what would exist would not be the same as what I had thought in my concept, but more than that, and I could not say that the very object of my concept exists” (Critique of Pure Reason, A600/B628).   
It is important to note the context of Kants rejection of existence as a predicate, which is his criticism of the ontological argument. Kant, as he says above, took Anselm to be arguing that predicating the concept ‘being’ of anything added something to the concept of a thing. This is not entirely correct, however, when we look at Anselm, who says that something which exists only in the understanding is not as great as something which exists in reality. Thus, a god which actually exists is greater than one which exists merely in the understanding.
So having noted that Kant is not a terrific reader of Anselm, is he in fact wrong? Lots of folks have argued that being is not a predicate or a property of individuals. Russell is probably the most well known – he argued that existence or being is a second-order concept. So, to say that X doesn’t exist is just to say that the property of being X is not instantiated. This makes more sense if you look at his debate with Meinong, which really turns out to be a debate over whether existence is equivocal or univocal. Meinong held to the former, Russell the latter (Frege as well). Russell took it to be the case that everything exists, while Meinong too it to be the case that not everything that exists exists. If existence is a predicate, then the problem of negative existentials really looms large, which is probably the main reason Russell held to his view. That is, if existence is a predicate, it becomes quite easy to argue from, say the existence of donkeys to the existence of, say, Eeyore (there’s actually issues here, but bracket those for the moment).

The fundamental disagreement between Aquinas and Anselm, IMO, occurs in the SCG, where Aquinas says that

‘No difficulty, consequently, befalls anyone who posits that God does not exist. For that something greater can be thought than anything given in reality or in the intellect is a difficulty only to him who admits that there is something than which a greater cannot be thought in reality.’

Obviously, this is in direct conflict with Anselm’s invocation of the Fool, but to me it also shows that the Ontological Argument is more logical than metaphysical. Anselm is basically interpreting negative existentials as being both about something ‘in the understanding’ that does not exist in reality: Anselm is trying to derive a logical contradiction or absurdity here. In other words, Anselm is trying to show that ‘There is no God’ or ‘God doesn’t exist’ is a contradiction. But this is easily avoided if we employ something like Russell theory of definite descriptions: we can say that ‘God’ = ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. The fool can be taken to be saying that ‘there is nothing which fits the description ‘‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. To avoid the contradiction, all we have to do is translate that to ‘For any given thing, in the understanding or in reality, a greater than it can be conceived’, and, since Anselm’s argument doesn’t require the Fool to know that his statement is true but only to state it without contradiction, we have avoided Anselm’s contradiction. Aquinas’s quote above is basically the same as what I just laid out.

‘We Willingly Spoil Ourselves’: or, the Impact of Justification by Faith Alone on Man’s Natural Knowledge of God

Perhaps no more familiar conflict exists in the wide world of theology than Barth’s conflict with natural theology. Summarized by the title of his (in)famous reply to Emil Brunner, this has often been taken as a conversation-stopper. And yet, as is so often the case with familiar stories, there is, in fact, more to the story. While Barth never swayed from his negative instincts towards natural theology, it is exceedingly important to pinpoint exactly what he felt and exactly what he felt that about. Torrance went a long way towards clarifying what Barth mean in his rejection of natural theology though himself was somewhat inconsistent in his own positive articulation of the doctrine; however, both give pride of place to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Torrance fleshes out a good deal of all this in his essay on the Scots Confession, and makes a few key moves that are absolutely crucial to both his and Barth’s thinking on this subject. Continue reading

Moving Towards the Future Ideal: or, the Place of Truth, Purpose and Realism in Peirce’s Pragmaticism

Pragmatism in America has, by and large, been thought of as a theory of truth. This is in no small part due to William James’s formulation of pragmatism as, in fact, a theory of truth, where the truth of a theory consists in its ‘cash value’, and it’s fair to say that this brand of pragmatism can be construed as a primarily ‘psychological’ kind of pragmatism. It was just this kind of psychologism that Peirce was keen to avoid in his own thinking, and in so avoiding, Peirce articulated a philosophy in which truth, purpose and realism played roles that they never could have played in the psychologistic theories of pragmatism. Continue reading

From Metaphysical Possibility to Miraculous History: or, how Karl Barth Turned from Analogy to Christology and Back Again

‘Metaphysics’ – The Antichrist

Barth and analogy were not friends. Not just any kind of analogy provoked Barth’s wrath, however, but a very specific kind of analogy: the analogy of being (or so the story goes). This well-known theological campfire tale has undergone significant criticisms since its origin in the early 20th century, and the reader may be forgiven for feeling a bit exasperated at yet another blog post on this well-worn topic. As deep as the ruts in this field may be, though, there yet remains much to be gleaned. Let’s start off with the nub of this issue: talking about God. There’s two topics within this nub which merit close attention: what I’ll call ‘the given’, which is the fact that we can, actually, talk about God, and what I’ll call the ‘transcendental’, which is the question of the conditions of the possibility for talking about God. Given ‘the given’, what makes it possible and intelligible?  There are, broadly (probably too broadly), two answers to this transcendental question. The first says that the answer to the question of the possibility of talking about God lies in metaphysical possibility. That is, within the created order, within nature, there is a kind of similarity to God.  The second says that the possibility lies not in creation but in God. (Here we must make a metaphysical and christological digression before we return to the problem of talking about God.) Continue reading

Biblical Studies Carnival, April 2017 – With a Hint of Theology and Philosophy


Larry Hurtado takes a look at ‘The Form of God‘ as it appears in Philo and Paul.

The Guardian isn’t typically where I look for evidence of the existence of Jesus (nor is it strictly a blog, but this was interesting enough to merit inclusion), but Simon Gathercole presents a few of the more compelling pieces of historical evidence for Jesus.

Christianity Today interviews Mike Licona on the (seeming?) contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospels (again, not strictly a blog, but certainly biblical-studies-related).

When did communion go from being an actual meal to a ritual meal?

Mike Bird gives a brief overview of and bibliography for the ‘continuing exile’ thesis defended most prominently by N.T. Wright.

For the beer drinkers among us: beer in Mesopotamia

Depictions of Easter in a twelfth century manuscript.

A fascinating look at negotiation in Ezra-Nehemiah, in which Bourdieu makes an appearance.

What Do Old, Dirty, Broken Pieces Of Pottery Have To Do With The Bible?

Phil Long at Reading Acts has a fine series of posts on the roots of the Jewish rebellion: Social BanditryFalse MessiahsZealots and Sicarii.

How to use secondary literature in NT research

Archaeology and Biblical Studies: Though Different Disciplines, They Are Friends

Craig Keener had some fascinating things to say about Ishmael and Abraham 

Andrew Wilson notes something interesting about Jesus being ‘handed over’



The big news in the philosophy/religion/philosophy of religion world: Alvin Plantinga was awarded the Templeton Prize (again [again], not strictly a blog, but still). While this is a maximally great event, not everyone is pleased.

A fantastic review of Dogmatics after Barth – for the Barthians and dogmaticians among us, this will be a crucial volume.

One of my own hobby horses, the Barth Wars, gets a little bit of coverage here in this review of Reading Barth with Charity with a rejoinder by the author.

Zondervan’s Common Places blog had two fine posts on grace alone in the context of the Five Solas this month: one by Carl Trueman, one by Michael Horton.

William Lane Craig gave two great answers to to great questions in his weekly Q&A: one on the doctrine of the atonement and one on the place of Old Testament difficulties in Christian belief.

Threefold Gospel in Paul’s Letters

Do Christians really not believe in the Resurrection?

A superb look by Cassandra Farrin at Martin Luther the Man

Andrew Perriman had a number of interesting posts, including a review-series of Salvation by Allegiance Alone (this is the fourth and most recent post -I linked to this because the other posts in the series are more easily accessible from here), Jesus and violence, and a quiz on the atonement (which was very much worth taking).


Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?

A typically perceptive post by Richard Beck: Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 1, What Is So Bad About Empathy? (be sure to read all of the posts in this series)


May 2017 will be hosted by Jeff Carter

June 2017 by Cassandra Farrin

July 2017 by Reuben Rus

August 2017 by Jason Gardner

October 2017 – open! If you’re interested, get in touch with Phil Long

November 2017 – Jim West

December 2017 – Jennifer Guo

Thanks for stopping by – if there’s anything I missed (and I’m sure there is) then please feel free to link in the comments!

A Dogmatic Framework: or, how a Debate Over the Semantics of Truth Rehabilitated Ontology

During the balmy days when it was socially acceptable to entertain logical positivism as a coherent philosophical position, it was commonly thought that questions of metaphysics were senseless, nonsense, or not even wrong. There are, of course, no shortage of problems with positivism and it’s safe to say that positivism is one of the very few philosophical theses that attained the distinction of being rejected because it was, in fact, actually wrong. However, granting all of that, it is no less the case that contemporary ontology has been shaped largely by a debate which took place on positivist grounds: the debate between Carnap and Quine on metaontology. The simple version of their respective positions might be boiled down to two ideas: for Carnap, metaphysical or ontological questions don’t really have an answer, while for Quine they do, and for Carnap, there are two kinds of truth, while for Quine ‘truth is truth’ and comes in only one variety. The outcome of this debate would have far-reaching consequences for metaphysics and ontology. Continue reading

The Necessarily Trinitarian Shape of Divine Freedom: or, How It is Impossible to Preserve Freedom in a Doctrine of God Unless Trinity is Priority

Towards the back end of her Systematic Theology, Katherine Sonderegger attempts to work out a coherent doctrine of divine freedom within her doctrine of God. Her account of God is to a large degree set over against what she takes to be overly-trinitarian accounts: as should be well known at this point, her fundamental starting point is God’s oneness, as opposed to God’s triunity. Much to modern theology’s chagrin, she also enthusiastically embraces substance as a legitimate category for describing God, and she also enthusiastically positions herself against Barth on a number of matters. What I want to do here is draw out what I think are some serious shortcomings over her view here and then see where Barth, something of a bête noire for Sonderegger, can offer a better way forward. Continue reading