Monday, November 1, 2010

Chastek and Coffey contra Kant

My recent post on Kant concerns an Aristotelian-Thomistic objection to Kantian ethics. I offer some criticisms of Kantian epistemology and metaphysics in The Last Superstition, and of Kantian objections to cosmological arguments for God’s existence in Aquinas. Today James Chastek helpfully spells out some further, more general objections Thomists have to Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics. Go take a look. Chastek recommends Oliva Blanchette’s Philosophy of Being as further reading. Another place to look for a detailed Scholastic take on Kant is Coffey’s Epistemology, which addresses the subject at length both in Volume 1 and in Volume 2.


  1. So, you've tackled his Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork, and James has handled the Critique of Pure Reason. Who's going to do the Critique of Judgement?

    Seriously, I'd like to see what you'd make of Kant's analysis of teleological judgements! And I wouldn't mind seeing your response to his aesthetic theory, either.

  2. Ed, one thing I'm curious of. Two, actually.

    First, you often discuss theistic personalism and the problems you see with it. Do you ever get the impression that many people (not so much philosophers, even philosophers of religion, but scientists and the 'average person') fail to even come close to understanding what the God of classical theism is supposed to be? Specifically, do you get the impression that a lot of them just forever think of God as 'bearded man in the sky', and the very idea of God as pure act, as immaterial and unchanging, never really sinks in?

    Second, is it accurate to regard neo-platonism as a kind of theism? I admit, as I try to figure out simplicity in classical theism, I have trouble regarding platonists as anything but theists of a sort. (To put it loosely, if God is goodness by classical theism, and someone believes in goodness in a platonic sense, then isn't the conclusion that that person - by classical theist rights - believes in God?)

  3. Crude,

    Yes, many of them simply have the "bearded sky god" on the brain, and nothing one says about what the mainstream theological tradition has actually held makes a dent. They are too polemically invested in the caricature and don't want to give it up: "Yeah but all this pure actuality, divine simplicity, etc. stuff -- it's all just about propping up the bearded sky god, right?"

    Re: Neo-Platonism, yes, that's what I would say (as Augustine essentially did) even though, naturally, there are aspects of neo-Platonism I wouldn't accept.

  4. Dr. Feser,

    What do you make of the Eastern Orthodox position that God's energies are distinct from His essence?

  5. Hello Ingemar,

    I find I'm getting this question a lot, so sometime I'll have to write something on it. The short answer is that, like Thomists generally, I don't think it can be reconciled with divine simplicity.

  6. Thanks Ed.

    I know, the answer to at least the first seems blindingly obvious. The reason I ask is because I now and then bump into self-described platonists who see things like mathematics, even ethics and 'the good', as existing in some kind of platonic realm. But then they describe themselves as atheist, or at least agnostic.

    So I sometimes wonder how many people have an idea of God that is surprisingly close to classical ideas, even classical theism (however vaguely) but then describe themselves as atheists or agnostics because they think whatever 'that' is isn't the sort of God spoken of in Christianity, etc. In fact, I wonder how many people would regard an absolutely simple God, an unchanging God, etc, as 'an impersonal force' simply due confusion.

  7. Hi Ed,

    No need for an answer now, and if you've already addressed this, then my apologies, but two problems I see with divine simplicity are:
    (1) reconciling it with the doctrine of the Trinity
    (2) reconciling it with divine freedom and avoiding necessitarianism. Let me elaborate on (2). If God is simple, then I take it that his power is identical to his wisdom is identical to his goodness ... etc. Moreover, if God is pure act, then it seems as though God's goodness is identical to the one act God does (God just performs one super large act with lots of sub-acts, right?). But if God is perfectly free, then it seems to me that God could have created any number of different worlds (which would have been a different act from what He in fact did) or refrained from creating altogether (which would have been a different act from what He in fact did). But that seems to mean that His omnipotence, which is identical to His act of creating this world, could have been identical to a different act of creating a different world. So, even though those two acts are different, they are both identical to God's power, knowledge, goodness, etc. And that seems to be problematic.

    (As for necessitarianism, one way you could deny the above problem is to say that God can create only this world, but that of course would entail a denial of divine freedom and an affirmation of necessitarianism.)

  8. I second Bobcat's request.

    Incidentally, am I the only one here who doesn't have all that much of a problem with necessitarianism? It seems a position worth taking seriously, to say the least.

  9. Bobcat said: But if God is perfectly free, then it seems to me that God could have created any number of different worlds (which would have been a different act from what He in fact did) or refrained from creating altogether (which would have been a different act from what He in fact did)

    I would disagree here, and instead argue that it is precisely because God is infinitely free (and, in joint operation with the fact that he is also infinitely good) that he could not have done other than what he has done. Orthodox theologian David B. Hart articulated this point much better than I ever could in his 2005 book, The Doors of the Sea. I hope it helps:

    Of course, we are inclined (especially today) to think of freedom wholly in terms of arbitrary or pathetic volition, a potency made actual every time one chooses a particular course of action out from a variety of other possibilities. And obviously, for finite intellects and wills, this is the minimal form that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement. All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it even before it has chosen. Moreover, these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.

    A higher understanding of human freedom, however, is inseparable from a definition of human nature. To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one's nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness. The will that chooses poorly, then - through ignorance, maleficence, or corrupt desire - has not thereby become freer, but has further enslaved itself to forces that prevent it from achieving its full expression. And it is this richer understanding of human freedom that provides us some analogy to the freedom of God. For God is infinite actuality, the source and end of all being, the eternally good, for whom mere arbitrary "choice" - as among possibilities that somehow exceed his present actuality - would be a deficiency, a limitation placed upon his infinite power to be God. His freedom is the impossibility of any force, pathos, or potentiality interrupting the perfection of his nature or hindering him in the realization of his own illimitable goodness, in himself and in his creatures.[..]The object of God's will is his own infinite goodness, and it is an object perfectly realized, and so he is free.

  10. Dr. Feser,

    I too very much desire to have your thoughts on the Divine Simplicity vs. Essence / Energy debate. Many Orthodox Palamists insist the two metaphysical schemas are non-compatible. Other's, however, interpret Palamis in such a way as to forge a potential reconciliation. You can expect a very vigorous reaction from the Orthodox if you should choose to tackle this issue. Still, I hope you will!

    Pax et Bonum,


  11. Hi Anonymous,

    I'm certainly familiar with this notion of freedom; Kant also thought that God was freer because God could act only according to the moral law, whereas we, who can go against the moral law, can do so only because we have an "incapacity".

    But that does seem to me to mean that God was not free to refrain from creating the world, or to create a different world. Moreover, I think it wouldn't be too hard to show that there would be a contradiction to God's creating any other world besides this one (it *seems* to me that I could produce a contradiction, but maybe this is just because I'm too wedded to a contemporary possible worlds semantics). And if I could show that the creation of any other world would involve a contradiction, that seems to take us pretty close to necessitarianism, the view that things could only be this way and no other way. It might not be necessitarianism--Leibniz held a view according to which if some world's containing a contradiction was provable only in an infinite number of steps, then it is a possible world. So there are definitely different ways of proving things' possibility or impossibility out there.

  12. I would say a version of Palamus that reconciles with th Divine Simplicity is mandated. No Catholic East or West can accept anything less.