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.

Reading Notes 5/11/2014

I started reading David Bentley Hart’s article on Anselm’s ‘Cur Deo Homos’, and he makes an interesting case for reading Anselm in a much more patristic light, instead of the typical way he’s understood (in terms of merit theology/trangression/honour). Hart notes similarities in Athanasius, though, and that’s fairly interesting. Hart argues that Anselm, once some of the language barriers are overcome, is drawing from the themes of recapitulation to make his own argument – with lots of neoplatonism as well. I’ll read it a bit more in depth, but so far it’s an intriguing take on a well-worn topic.

I’m reading, one chapter per night, through Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘dogmatics’ – ‘Man is Not Alone’ and ‘God in Search of Man’, and I’d like to do a bit of systematizing along the way. Those two books are fantastic works of philosophy – the latter being one of the best books on religion/philosophy I’ve ever read. It’s safe to say that Heschel’s philosophy of Judaism has had a profound influence on my own spiritual development.

Wright’s book on justification remains one of my favourites. His exegesis of Galatians, while brief, is superb – though the brevity has no doubt been the reason for much of its criticism. His framing of the doctrine around the Abrahamic promises is absolutely on point, as is his insistence that the problem surrounding the occasion of Galatians is the ethnic identity of Israel. I pretty much regard this aspect of the NPP as firmly established.

On the Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument (OA) is one of the more interesting a priori arguments in philosophy – it’s had both noted champions and critics, and it generally seems that although it is in fact interesting it is not compelling as an argument. I definitely agree – as an argument, it’s not that compelling.

But I was thinking about it last night – suppose it’s not necessarily meant to be a compelling argument. I mean, look at the context – it’s smack dab in the middle of a work of devotional/mystical prayer (indeed one of the great works of devotion and prayer of the middle ages, in my opinion). Anselm does indeed seem to want to prove ‘the fool’ wrong – but perhaps not so much in an analytic way but rather in a religious way.

In a nutshell, I think the OA is an excercise in allowing the mind to ascend to the most pure communion with God – in a sense, to find God in His most real or ultimate form. Anselm’s famous definition of God as that which no greater can be conceived isn’t so much of an analytic axiom – rather it is the full force of the reality of God upon the mind. Anselm has arrived at God – in a ‘this is *it*’ kind of way. It’s God in His full reality of being, or rather a glimpse of that, being had by the mind, and all Anselm can say is ‘no greater can be conceived’. While differing in content and form I think there is a family resemblance with the theologies of Bonaventure and Eckhart here. Anselm is seeking true communion with the Reality that is God, and as he continually ascends towards God’s reality he finds His most perfect form as that which no greater can be conceived.

Now this is a pretty brief and broad exposition, and I haven’t really gone into a lot of depth and suspect that this isn’t really a majority opinion as to the meaning of the argument. But it’s what I get when reading the work.

A Prayer for Enemies

‘This is the punishment
that in the secret of my heart
I want to exact
for those who serve with me and those who sin with me –
this is the punishment that I ask
for those who serve with me and hate me –
let us love you and each other
as you will and as is expedient for us,
so that we may make good amends to the good Lord
for our own and for each other’s offences;
so that we may obey with one heart in love
one Lord and Master.
This is the revenge your sinner asks
on all who wish him evil and act against him.
Most merciful Lord,
prepare the same punishment for your sinner.’

(Saint Anslem, ‘The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anslem,’ p. 218)