Friday, November 15, 2019

Join the Ur-Platonist alliance!


What’s in a name?  I’m an unreconstructed Thomist, but I would be the last to deny that it is a mistake to think that one man, Thomas Aquinas, somehow got everything right all by himself.  Aquinas was, of course, part of a much larger tradition that extends back to the ancient Greek philosophers.  Much of his achievement had to do with synthesizing the best elements from the different strands of thought he inherited from his predecessors, especially the Platonic-Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions.  And of course, his successors added further important elements to the mix. 

Hence in some contexts, it is useful to employ a label that captures this breadth more clearly than “Thomism” does – such as “Aristotelico-Thomism” or, more broadly still, “Scholasticism.”  Indeed, I’m especially fond of the “Scholastic” label, and would urge its widespread adoption by young Catholic philosophers and theologians – in part for substantive reasons, but also in part as a way of showing solidarity with a group of thinkers who were the greatest the Church has produced, yet who have for too long been unjustly maligned even by some of their fellow Catholics.

However, especially where the issues do not have to do with specifically Catholic theology, but are of broader philosophical concern, even the “Scholastic” label can sometimes be too narrow.  There is a set of ideas and arguments that have their origin in Plato and Aristotle and are the common possession of later pagan thinkers like Plotinus, Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, and Muslim thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes, as well as the Church Fathers and the great Scholastics.  The label “classical theism” captures the shared philosophical theology of this diverse group, and “classical natural law” captures their shared ethical perspective.  But there are yet other philosophical themes that aren’t captured by these labels.

The 19th century Neo-Scholastic Josef Kleutgen suggested another label in the title of his important and recently translated book Pre-Modern Philosophy Defended.  Yet other labels sometimes used during the Neo-Scholastic era include “classical realism” and “the perennial philosophy.”  The trouble with these last two labels is that they are somewhat vague, and have been deployed by others in very different contexts to connote ideas that have nothing essentially to do with the thinkers mentioned above.

Now, there is another way to think about the tradition I’m describing, which has been developed by Lloyd Gerson in his important books Aristotle and Other Platonists and From Plato to Platonism (soon to be joined by a third volume titled Platonism and Naturalism: The Possibility of Philosophy).  In an excellent recent talk at the Thomistic Institute’s Student Leadership Conference at the Dominican House of Studies, Fr. James Brent proposed adopting Gerson’s framework as a way of understanding contemporary secularism.  Fr. Brent suggests that the conflict between secularism and traditional religious believers isn’t merely a dispute over the existence of God, but amounts to a larger conflict between philosophical naturalism on the one hand and what Gerson calls “Ur-Platonism” or “big tent” Platonism on the other.

As the title of the first of his books referred to above indicates, Gerson sees Aristotle as part of the Platonist tradition broadly construed, and that is in fact how many of the ancients also saw him.  Of course, Aristotle disagreed with Plato on some important points, but this disagreement took place against a background of agreement on the philosophical fundamentals.  Gerson also argues for a return to the ancient view that the thinking of so-called “Neo-Platonists” like Plotinus (who thought of themselves as simply Platonists full stop, and who also regarded Aristotle as part of the Platonist club) was in fact continuous with that of Plato, rather than marking some break or novelty.  Gerson proposes a couple of ways of spelling out the nature of the broad agreement that existed between these thinkers.

In From Plato to Platonism, he suggests that the common core of “Ur-Platonism” can be characterized in negative terms, as a conjunction of five “antis”: anti-materialism, anti-mechanism, anti-nominalism, anti-relativism, and anti-skepticism.  Together these elements make up a sixth “anti-,” namely anti-naturalism.  Thinkers in the Ur-Platonist tradition spell out the implications of this conjunction of “antis” in ways that differ in several details, but certain common themes tend to emerge, such as the thesis that ultimate explanation requires positing a non-composite divine cause, the immateriality of the intellect, and the objectivity of morality.  In his talk, Fr. Brent follows this approach to characterizing the tradition.

In Aristotle and Other Platonists, Gerson proposed a positive characterization of the tradition, as comprising seven key themes: 1. The universe has a systematic unity; 2. This unity reflects an explanatory hierarchy and in particular a “top-down” approach to explanation (as opposed to the “bottom-up” approach of naturalism), especially in the two key respects that the simple is prior to the complex and the intelligible is prior to the sensible; 3. The divine constitutes an irreducible explanatory category, and is to be conceived of in personal terms (even if in some Ur-Platonist thinkers the personal aspect is highly attenuated); 4. The psychological also constitutes an irreducible explanatory category; 5. Persons are part of the hierarchy and their happiness consists in recovering a lost position within it, in a way that can be described as “becoming like God”; 6. Moral and aesthetic value is to be analyzed by reference to this metaphysical hierarchy; and 7. The epistemological order is contained with this metaphysical order.

If Gerson and Fr. Brent are right, then arguably the two main competing visions in the history of Western thought are represented by Ur-Platonists on the one hand, and on the other hand those who defend the positions that Ur-Platonists are against (namely materialism, mechanism, nominalism, relativism, and skepticism), and especially philosophical naturalists.  (I don’t mean to deny that there are thinkers who don’t unambiguously fall into either of these camps.  Of course there are.  But I think it can be argued that these are the main tendencies, and that even thinkers that don’t clearly fall into one or the other at least tend in the direction of the one or the other.)

The main downside to the “Ur-Platonist” label is that the term “Platonism” is these days usually used by academic philosophers to refer to the thesis that there are abstract objects (such as Platonic Forms and mathematical objects) existing in a “third realm” distinct from either the material world or any mind.  But as Gerson argues, historically speaking that is in fact much too narrow a way of using the term.  For example, it isn’t what the Church Fathers mean when they talk about Platonism, and it isn’t what the so-called “Neo-Platonists” mean when they talk about Platonism.  Consider also that when naturalist thinkers like Nietzsche and Richard Rorty use “Platonism” as a pejorative term to describe what they are fundamentally against, they don’t mean merely the thesis that there are abstract objects.  Rather, what they mean to oppose is precisely the broad tradition that Gerson calls “Ur-Platonism.”

If the naturalists are the bad guys, then “Ur-Platonists” is as good a label as any for the good guys.  I recommend giving Fr. Brent’s talk a listen, and all serious students of philosophy and theology are well-advised to study Gerson’s work.

42 comments:

  1. What does the "ur" stand for? Sounds a bit strange to me. I think we might need a better name, one which is more marketable. "Naturalism" itself is an attractive name, since that which is natural often has positive connotations - and "materialism" would be a more precise term (shouldn't souls be "natural" for a dualist anyway?). But naturalism stuck, and it is marketable.

    Maybe we should use something like mentalism, or even teleologism. I think another way to describe "ur-platonism" (perhaps in a more broad way) is that it is a philosophy which takes Mind and Reason to be foundational to reality, and irreducible to matter. Since Mind is foundational, laws and nature can be understood as having formal and final causes, and mechanicism is avoided; personal explanations exist and are distinct from natural ones; consciousness and (especially) reason are not reducible to bodies so there is no pressure against dualism; Classical Theism follows as the foundational mind behind reality; some ethical and aesthetic truths can be abstracted from final causality; etc.

    Maybe "teleologism" or "mentalism" would be better than ur-platonism?

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    1. Mentalism sounds too much like Idealism. Teleologism is a bit cumbersome. They are good suggestions though.

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    2. "ur-" means original.

      For instance "ur-language" would mean the first language ever.

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    3. We still need a better name. I'll never buy "Ur-Platonism", it will be cumbersome to explain. Plus it doesn't translate easily to other languages; afaik the use of "ur" isn't common in Portuguese, Spanish, etc. even in academic settings.

      The name should be marketable, too. Remember that cultural battles are also fought with aesthetics; it is important to appeal to the will too, not just the intellect. Hence "naturalism" being favored over the reductionistic-sounding, dreary "materialism".

      Again, the dividing line could be simply explained as the view which takes Mind and Reason to be foundational to reality, and therefore that nature has irreducible non-mechanistic tendencies, that these tendencies can reveal ethical and aesthetic truths, that mind is more than matter, that there is a Divine Mind behind the whole show, and so on.

      Teleologism?
      Purposism? Since there is built-in purpose in nature with final causes, as well as the Divine Intellect behind everything, etc.
      Nousism? From the Greek "nous". Nousist philosophers would believe in Intellect/Reason as foundational and irreducible.
      Intellicism?

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    4. It seems to be used similarly to Umberto Eco's "ur-fascism." Eco was trying to define fascism broadly construed, rather than just specific flavors like Nazism and Italian Fascism. Similar project here. Platonism broadly construed, not just Platonism qua Plato.

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    5. In music "ur-" also implies original as in "urtext edition" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtext_edition) which is a printed music edition closest to the composer's intention, so MINUS slurs, fingerings, and dynamic markings that non-urtext edition usually adds to help performers BUT adding implied interpretation by the printed music editor.

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  2. Don't forget that Plato was a student of Socrates. Both Plato and Socrates were philodorians---they were "adherents, admirers and disciples" of Spartan Culture. Plutarch notes that Lycurgus formed a ***COMPLETE*** philosophic state.

    Gerson doesn't mention that at all. No textbook or reference book mentions that.

    "Doric Crete and Sparta the home of Greek philosophy"
    https://www.academia.edu/1619268/

    Philosophy is not solely an intellectual thing. It is an ars vivendi for True Philosophy is "according to nature". That is what "philo-sophia" is, Friend of the Wisdom buried in Nature. Aristotle kinda-destroyed that. For me, Aristotle intellectualized philosophy when true philosophy is living according to nature, is the science of reality, a universal science and metaphysics is only a part of it.

    Yes, there is a True Grand Tradition, UrPlatonist is alright---but we shouldn't be ignorant of the founders of Philosophy---The Doric Greeks. One can't know a thing without its origins and if one is ignorant of the origins---you don't know true philosophy. All you have is sophistry.

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    1. Philosophy students really need to be armchair classicists.

      The German Classicist, Werner Jaeger, in his book The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers lays out that it was a "Wisdom Tradition" streaming from King Minos, a Doric King, to Lycurgus, to Solon. Socrates was in the deme of Solon, I believe.

      The Dorians created philosophy even before King Minos. It was there before they migrated south. Did you know that they migrated in tribes of three? That they did things in threes?

      It is not "Ur Patonist" but Doric Philosophy which Aristotelianism is an "offshoot", an extension of Doric philosophy.

      Philo--sophia is being a Friend of the Wisdom that built the Cosmos. It is about adopting the Laws of Nature, or Natural Law, that built the cosmos---borrowing the Wisdom of God. "Christ the Logos, Font of Greek Philosophy"
      https://www.academia.edu/1619469/

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    2. One can tell a True philosopher from a false one by whosoever acknowledges the true origin of philosophy as Sparta!

      And that is precisely why that FACT will not be taught---because once all these modern gnostics out there here that---no one will enter a philosophy course!!!!

      It kinda interests me where are the Catholics here? Are we about teaching The Truth or continuing the falsehoods of modern Marxist academia? How many of our seminaries are going to teach the proper foundation of Philosophy?

      None.

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    3. Mother Africa is the font of philosophy!

      Seriously Feser, isn't it time you reigned in this literally fascist bore?

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  3. What is meant by "Anti-skepticism?" Does that specifically mean skepticism about God & other spirits, miracles, etc, or a more broader skepticism, like something that might lead someone to Solipsism?

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    1. In Gerson uses it, it's skepticism about episteme in a broad sense that would be recognized by Platonists and Aristotelians: roughly, an incorrigible cognition, going beyond belief (even justified true belief), of the intelligible world.

      He has a good discussion of the Five Antis in this paper available online:

      https://www.academia.edu/39757061/Plato_Platonism_and_the_History_of_Philosophy

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    2. In this sense, it's philosophical skepticism: that is, a position that disputes the very possibility of objective posited knowledge.

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  4. "Stranger: And indeed there seems to be a battle like that of the gods and the giants going on among them, because of their disagreement about existence. Theaetetus: How so? Stranger: Some of them drag down everything from heaven and the invisible to earth, actually grasping rocks and trees with their hands; for they lay their hands on all such things and maintain stoutly that that alone exists which can be touched and handled; for they define existence and body, or matter, as identical, and if anyone says that anything else, which has no body, exists, they despise him utterly, and will not listen to any other theory than their own. Theaetetus: Terrible men they are of whom you speak. I myself have met with many of them. Stranger: Therefore those who contend against them defend themselves very cautiously with weapons derived from the invisible world above, maintaining forcibly that real existence consists of certain ideas which are only conceived by the mind and have no body. But the bodies of their opponents, and that which is called by them truth, they break up into small fragments in their arguments, calling them, not existence, but a kind of generation combined with motion. There is always, Theaetetus, a tremendous battle being fought about these questions between the two parties."--Plato, *Sophist* 246a

    Cf. also Thomas Lennon's *The Battle of the Gods and Giants: The Legacies of Descartes and Gassendi, 1655-1715*: "The contest between Cartesianism and Gassendism is a spectacular example of...the perennial struggle between the friends of the Forms and the materialists. [...] As Plato also saw, the gravamen of this struggle was the proper exercise of moral and especially political authority. The analysis of space, the things in it, and how we know them--not to mention the grand metaphysical question itself--were all seen to have colossal normative significance." (Preface)

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    1. Great post laubadetriste, the same battle rages. Terrible men they are. Plato called for the interdiction of atheists and if not converted in 5 years---quietly, secretly, put to death.

      Just a note on Gassendi. The historian at Hillsdale College, Paul A. Rahe in his book, Against Throne and Altar, outs Gassendi, even though a Roman Catholic priest, was an atheist.

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    2. That is exactly the quote from Sophist that I wanted to post! Fr. Brent had talked about this at the Newburgh conference back in June as well, and I have found it quite helpful in introducing these ideas to a couple of groups of students I've been teaching. Friends of the forms vs. the earth-bound giants!

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  5. I have a question related to Platonism.

    Namely, some medieval theologians with a Platonic bent (such as St. Bernard) describe how the perfection of love should be to love ourselves for God's sake alone and not for our own sake. This would mean the natural self-love that is formally directed towards ourselves is either sinful or like marriage in that it is meant only for a time, but will be abolished at the end of the age.

    Now, is this exclusivistic view of the formal ground of love something that a Catholic is obliged to hold? And is the source of this view of love characteristic of the Platonists (as I thini seems likely) and not something other schools such as Scholasticism believe?

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  6. What about simply Socratic vs. anti-Socratic philosophy? Obviously the downside of that term is that Socratic is also used to refer to dialectic. But I feel like all of the errors of modern philosophy are errors insofar as they are a return to the Pre-Socratics. The key difference is that the Pre-Socratic did not have the perspective of modern man, so their mistakes are more excusable. That is why modern naturalism should be referred to as Anti-Socratic rather than Socratic. Thoughts?

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    1. On second thought, perhaps just a Classical/Modernist dichotomy would be best. Pope Pius X called Modernism the synthesis of all heresies. The same could be said philosophically.

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  7. Hello everyone, amateur catholic philosopher and I was wondering if anyone had reading suggestions with respect to metaphysical naturalism and the problems faced by it with respect to evolution, i.e evolutionary arguments against naturalism. I know it's unrelated to the post but it's a topic I'm really interested about and didn't want to ask on another post because I don't think they're as active in responding. If anyone reading this could please give reading suggestions.

    P.S I already have a book by Alvin Plantiga on the subject as well as C.S Lewis book miracles which discusses this subject.

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    1. To get a perspective from a naturalist, you should read Nagel(from past to present , starting with his article "Why is it like to be a bat?") and Tallis (Starting with "Aping Mankind" and the follow-ups). Fodor and Searle also have something on that topic, particlularly Fodor. To get something from a theist in the same category of the authors you mentioned, I´d recommend Jim Slagle´s "Epistemological Skyhook".

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    2. Sorry Fodor who? I've heard the others and have a few of their books but I've never heard of him before. With respect to Jim Slagle, I've listened to a few podcasts were he talks about his book and it sounds really interesting, only it's really, really expensive.

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  8. Plato send us all to explore beyond “the cave”, do do “beyond the cave” philosophy. But more than 2000 years later, for some people, “the cave” is all there is. Aristotelians and Thomists are in the “beyond the cave” tradition.

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  9. Following Chesterton in his biography of Aquinas, I've always just called it the philosophy of common sense.

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  10. I feel we need more Thomistic YouTube channels. There is no way to win this fight if we do not enter in polemics with popular atheists or if we are not able to address a great audience. If would urge anyone with the capacity to do it to make a channel. Call it Ur-Platonism Alliance. Seriously guys we need to fight this battle the way the other side is doing it. We need to engage with our critics. We need more debates. Not that the more academic approach Ed has been favoring in recent years does not has its value. But I think we need to grow in number even to attract a greater academic interest. Dawkins has a new book, but honestly who cares about Dawkins those days. We need to engage with the YouTube people. We need to fight he urban legends of science vs religion. I myself am tired of this debate of course. But I still see those legends in the minds of many young people specially.

    As for Catholic philosophers, we need to go back to the Scholatic tradition. We need to get scientific as the scholastics were. Ed has written a lot on this topic and answered the popular objections to Scholaticism. I myself can answer all of them in with just a sentence: go read Reginald Garrigou Lagrange. “Oh, but Scholastcism is so spiritually shallow” Read Lagrange “It is a reduction of Christian wisdom to pagan philosophy” Lagrange again “It is too rational and closed to mistery” Go to Lagrange

    Also for Catholics, let’s remember that this is also a spiritual battle. Christ call Satan a lier. We also have to do this to save souls.

    And here is my adress for musicians and poets. Start making the Ur-Platonism alliance hymn

    We also need an emblem. So we have plenty of work ahead guys. PLATONISTS...assemble

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    1. The problem is that the average internet user who watches videos on YouTube wants quick and simple answers. Few have the patience to dive deeper into those issues. So on the one hand are the fundamentalists who provide easy answers with pointing us to the bible. And on the other hand we have the two-bit skeptics with hundreds of thousand subscribers and videos "Aquinas DESTROYED in three minutes".

      A video by "Classical Theist" or Mathoma is on average 20-40 minutes long and requires at least rudimentary understanding of the issues which have to be gained by earlier work. So the fight is a bit uneven (though it is clear that the latter possess a superior intellectual level)

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    2. That’s true. But atheists tend to face the same problem to develop their view at length. The reason why they are able to make short video is precisely because they don’t try to do that all the time. They just tackle some recent issue or some specific argument. We could do the same. Actually I think one need less then 3 minutes to debunk scientism. Most of Classical Theist vídeos have an average of 10 minutes, only the ones where he wants to provide a full defense of theism or Christianity does he spent more than 1 hour

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    3. The Thomistic Institute of the D.C. Dominican House of Studies has a very wonderful series of YouTube videos out now. Most are between three to five minutes.

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    4. Very few internet atheists are interested in thoughtful discernment; they are interested in acerbic wit. Actual thinking is hard work--and the reason so few engage in it.

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  11. I am definitely with Dr Feser, Lloyd Gerson and Fr James Brent on this. However, I balk at the term "Ur-Platonism". "Ur-" is a German prefix, denoting the earliest or most primitive form of something, similar (but not the same) as the Greek prefix "Proto-".

    For me, "Ur-Platonism" suggests the Platonism of the early dialogues (on the theory that it is possible to distinguish between early and late dialogues), or else the elements which were taken up by Plato from, say, Parmenides and Pythagoras - and Socrates too, if we can distinguish Socrates' thought from Plato's.

    We need a term that suggests that Plato is the foundation of the 'philosophy of the five antis': anti-materialism, anti-mechanism, anti-nominalism, anti-relativism, and anti-scepticism. "Big Tent Platonism" suggests, rightly, that thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas and beyond are on the same side, but the phrase somehow does not do it for me. I would suggest instead "Pan-Platonism" for what all these thinkers have in common as a heritage from Plato, whilst leaving room for the thought that their differences from Plato may either be true developments of Plato's thought, or else mistaken deviations therefrom.

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    1. Jonathan please read my posts above.

      The earliest and most primitive of philosophy is Doric philosophy. Plato and Socrates were all using Doric philosophy. Philosophy is a Doric thing.

      Doric philosophy is always growing because it is a science of reality and as our perception of it becomes keener, Doric philosophy grows. We shouldn't be forgetting how they used it.

      Just call it Doric philosophy which is the only true philosophy out there---all else is sophistry.

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  12. Thanks for the recommendations, Ed. I read 'Aristotle and Other Platonists' a number of years ago and was very impressed by its scholarship.

    I was not aware there was a second book and even an upcoming third. I'm excited to check them out.

    Marc

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  13. Monólogo cervantino (don't respond).

    "... Aristotle would no more have set up the Absolute side by side with the Apollo at Delphi, as a similar or rival religion, than Archimedes would have thought of setting up the lever as a sort of idol or fetish... Or we might as well imagine Euclid building an altar to an isosceles triangle. The one man meditated on metaphysics as the other man did on mathematics; for the love of truth or for curiosity or for the fun of the thing." G.K. Chesterton. The Everlasting Man.

    Stick to Aristotelico-Thomism as understood in the Church revival. The traditional term is ideal because it makes it clear that human reason didn't attain its object without very generous doses of error until St. Thomas incorporated into it a system which included the lord of sciences, theology.

    As Chesterton writes in the same work, the philosophers could have been given another two thousand years and would not have come any closer to religion which, without a personal relation to God, does not exist.

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    1. Don't feed the trollsNovember 17, 2019 at 12:41 PM

      Blog public service announcement:

      Beware, Cervantes is an obsessive troll who has been explicitly told to get lost by Feser. Please don't feed the trolls.

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  14. I like more the name "Friends of the Form" than "Ur-Platonism".

    Sounds like a philosophical justice league.

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  15. At least consciously, Hegel was giving a defence of Christianity--even though many people took his ideas in the opposite direction.

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  16. What does it mean to be "unreconstructed" in terms of Thomism?

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  17. Why don't we divide it into:

    City of God philosophy

    And

    City of Man philosophy?

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  18. My suggestion for terminology is to call the Ur-Platonic school "Formalist" as they all have an account of the formal nature of the universe above and apart from the material beings, to call their various opposites, taken as a whole, from Eliatics to Skeptics to Materialists by the term "Chaoticists."

    I would have suggested "Noetic" but I think that word has been used for other things.

    "Formal Philosophy" is also easy to understand and easy to explain: "Formalism" is any philosophy that supports realism rather than nominalism in metaphysics; idealist rather than materialist in ontology; teleological rather than mechanistic in questions of causation; axiomatic rather than skeptical in epistemology; objective rather than subjective in ethics.

    "Chaotic Philosophy" conveys the connotation of philosophers who see no order or pattern in the material universe, merely matter in motion, and ungoverned Ginnungagap (as it were) with no ruling principles, no center, no objective measure.

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