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.