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.

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

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

A Problem Emerges: or, why Nonreductive Materialism and Emergentism Face the Same Set of Insourmountable Problems

Jaegwon Kim, in his superb essay The nonreductivists troubles with mental causation (from the volume Supervenience and Mind), argues that nonreductive materialism (NRM) and emergentism (E) have the same cash value. He identifies four key theses that NRM is committed to: (1) all concrete particulars are physical (2) mental properties are not reducible to physical properties (3) all mental properties are physically realized and (4) mental properties are real properties of objects and events. Kim finds that E is committed to the same four theses: E accepts a materialist ontology (1), accepts that emergent properties are not reducible to their ‘basal conditions’ (2), accepts that higher-level or emergent properties need a physical base; this physical base is itself sufficient for the emergence of these properties (3) and finally, E accepts realism about the mental (4). These agreements are sufficient to show that NRM and E are, more or less, the same thing. Thus, any problems had by one are had by the other. Should NRM face an insurmountable difficulty, E will as well, and should E face its own insurmountable difficulty, then NRM also will. Continue reading

The Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man Sacrificed on the Altar of Universalism: or, Two Brief but Powerful Arguments Against Everyone Going to Heaven

In Destiny and Deliberation, Johnathan Kvanvig mounts an impressive attack on universalism on two fronts: the goodness of God and the freedom of man, and, to this reader at any rate, has given more than ample reason to doubt the truth of universalism. Perhaps what makes this so persuasive to me is that the arguments are purely philosophical – no retreat to contentious translations or traditions are possible here, no invoking of controversial thinkers to place universalism on firmer ground. If these arguments work, universalism is simply not an option. Kvanvig is working with what he calls ‘McTaggert’s dilemma‘, but I actually think that if we bracket that to the side, the challenge to universalism is even starker. The arguments proceed roughly as follows. The truth of universalism is either contingent or necessary – i.e., universalism is a possibility or it’s an impossibility. The former attacks the goodness of God, and the latter attacks the freedom of man.

Continue reading

The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination. Continue reading

Sellars and the Origin of the Theory of Folk Psychology

In Saving Belief, Lynne Rudder-Baker takes to task one of the two central doctrines within reductionist/eliminativist (RE) philosophies of mind: the doctrine of folk-psychology as an empirical theory. This doctrine, put simply, states that what traditional philosophers take to be the very ‘stuff’ of the mind – propositional attitudes, for example – is a kind of empirical theory and framework used in every-day, common-sense interaction and prediction of behaviour. Paul Churchland defines it thus: Continue reading