Thin skin for me, but not for thee
D. B. Hart’s predilection for gratuitous invective is so central and well-known a feature of his style that no reviewer can entirely avoid mentioning it – any more than the reviewer of a Steely Dan album can avoid discussion of production values and jazz influences, or any more than the reviewer of a David Mamet movie can avoid a reference to Pinteresque dialogue. At the same time, the topic of Hart’s rhetoric is at this point so hackneyed and boring that, unless there is some special reason for discussing it, a passing reference is all that is called for.
Hence, in my review I devoted only a single paragraph (out of 26) to citing some choice examples from the new book – primarily to illustrate the implausibility of Hart’s claim to “disinterestedness,” though also to indicate how much heavy lifting abusive rhetoric is really doing given that Hart does not even mention, much less respond to (as a truly scholarly book on his topic should have), the actual arguments of specific contemporary Thomists such as Feingold, Long, and Hütter. Having done that, I devoted the rest of the review to more interesting and substantive matters.
But even this mild, passing, unavoidable reference to D. B. Hart’s rhetoric was too much for S. Hart, who judges it “petty,” and indeed among the “rather extreme examples” (!) of the foibles of a review so “weak” and “egregious” that it reads like an “an April Fool’s joke” (!) The elder Hart’s stream of vituperation, we are assured, is in reality “rather tame” and indeed “quite playful.” And here we see that curious combination of psychological traits so often observed in the D. B. Hart fan base – frothy-mouthed relish of every insult Hart tosses at an opponent, coupled with lemon-juice-on-paper-cut hypersensitivity at the slightest criticism of the Master himself. Not being a psychiatrist or spiritual director, I cannot claim entirely to understand the complex. Anyway, at the moment I’m less interested in discussing D. B. Hart’s rhetoric than S. Hart is, so let’s move on.
In my review, I used the analogy of a laptop computer in order to illustrate the idea of an obediential potency. I trust that most readers don’t need to be reminded that an analogy doesn’t need to be perfect in order to make some narrow point, and that only certain features of the analogues are playing a role in an analogy. For example, when Christ compares himself to a thief in the night (Matthew 24:43; Revelation 16:15), the fact that thievery is sinful is irrelevant to the specific point of the analogy. Hence it would be inept to object to the analogy on the grounds that Christ could not sin. The disciples would have to have been pretty thick to respond: “Lord, how can you compare yourself to a criminal? Is this an April Fool’s joke?”
In the case of the laptop computer analogy, the point was just this. There is an obvious sense in which the laptop, considered just by itself and without anything you might connect to it, is complete. You might in principle use it for years without ever plugging anything into one of the USB ports or downloading new applications, without it ever malfunctioning or otherwise failing to do what it was designed to do. This was meant to be analogous to the notion of natura pura or “pure nature.” Had human beings never been offered the supernatural end of the beatific vision, there is a sense in which they would have been complete as long as they had the natural knowledge of God available via philosophical argument and the like.
At the same time, the laptop is designed in such a way that you could add software and equipment to it in a way that would make it capable of doing things that would not otherwise be possible. For example, you could download movie playing software, a speaker system, and the like, in order to make of it a home entertainment system. These additions would have to come from outside the existing system; just using the software already on the machine wouldn’t do it. At the same time, there is something about the computer itself that makes such upgrading possible, such as the presence of USB ports, the fact that it has a sufficiently powerful operating system, and so on. (For example, you could not download existing software of the kind in question on an old Commodore computer or Apple II Plus.)
This was meant to parallel the idea that divine causality operating on human nature from outside can raise us to the possibility of the beatific vision, but that there also nevertheless already has to be something present in human nature to makes us suitable for such elevation, namely our rationality. Non-human animals are not capable even in principle of being raised to the beatific vision, not even by divine action, precisely because they lack rationality. They are analogous to computer systems that have not been constructed with any means of adding on to them new hardware or software.
Obviously, I am not saying that human beings are in any other respect analogous to laptop computers, any more than Christ was saying that he is in any other respect like a thief. And of course, the analogy is not perfect. In the nature of the case, you are never going to find perfect analogies for the supernatural in the natural order. But it is a good enough analogy to make the specific point I was trying to make – that something can in one sense be complete even if at the same time it can also be raised to a higher end, and only because of something already built into it. And having something already built-in that makes it possible for a thing to go beyond its operations as an already complete instance of its kind is what having an “obediential potency” involves.
If you want to criticize the analogy, that’s fine. But I fail to see in it the “April Fool’s joke” level of stupidity S. Hart hyperbolically attributes to it. Certainly his specific objections draw no blood. Yes, as he notes, human beings are true substances with intrinsic teleology, whereas computers are mere artifacts with extrinsic teleology. So what? How does that affect the specific point of the analogy, any more than the fact that thievery is sinful and Christ sinless undermines our Lord’s analogy? It is good enough for the narrow purposes of the analogy that computers have the relatively stable (even if extrinsic) teleology that longstanding artefactual kinds have, and that some of the specific applications and equipment that could be added to them later might not be foreseen by the designers at the time they were designed.
It is true that Aristotelian-Thomist philosophers (myself included) often hammer on the sharp difference between true substances and artifacts. But the A-T position does not entail that we can draw no interesting analogies whatsoever between true substances and artifacts, and I know of no A-T writer who would say such a ridiculous thing. To insist that apples and oranges are different does not commit you never to acknowledging any similarity at all between the two.
S. Hart writes:
Feser’s example seems to only prove Hart’s point. The very fact that laptops have USB ports and the capacity to download new software means that their creators intended their further upgrading. In a sense, they are teleologically directed toward the further actualization of their various features.
End quote. The problem with this is that though the laptop’s creators intended further upgrading in a general way, what is relevant for the specific purposes of the analogy is that (a) there is nevertheless a sense in which the laptop is complete as it is, and (b) there might be some particular upgrade that was not intended by the creators – for example, a specific app that was not invented at the time the laptop was made. The USB ports and downloading capacities leave the laptop open to upgrades in a general way, but without aiming specifically at that upgrade in particular. Similarly, rationality leaves human nature open in a general way to the possibility of a supernatural end such as the beatific vision, but without actually aiming at it in particular.
Bat analogy or bad analogy?
I also borrowed Thomas Nagel’s famous example of our being unable to know what it is like to be a bat, in order to make a different, if related, point. Rational beings that we are, we can raise the question of what it is like to be a bat. At the same time, we might judge that this particular kind of experiential knowledge is not possible for us, given that we and bats have such very different physiological natures. Because it is not a kind of knowledge we are “built for” in the first place, we need not experience this inability as a deprivation, the way people do experience the inability to see or hear, or the loss of a limb, as deprivations.
By analogy, even if human beings in a state of “pure nature” could raise the question of what it would be to have direct knowledge of the divine essence, they might still judge that this is simply not possible for beings of our limited rational nature. And if so, they would not regard the impossibility of achieving the beatific vision by our natural powers as a deprivation, any more than they would experience the impossibility of knowing what it is like to be a bat as a deprivation. (That is, of course, not for a moment to suggest that the inability to know what it is like to be a bat is remotely as significant as the inability to achieve the beatific vision. That is not the point of the analogy.)
S. Hart’s objection to this is that, from my own A-T point of view, I would have to agree that contemplation of the forms or natures of things is the highest form of knowledge. Yet knowledge of what it is like to be a bat has nothing to do with knowing its form. Therefore (Hart’s conclusion seems to me, as far as I can follow the convoluted discussion of this passage from his article), my bat analogy fails.
The problem with this is that the analogy would fail only if I was claiming that the specific way that (a) knowing what it is like to be a bat is analogous to (b) the beatific vision is that they both involve knowledge of the form or nature of a thing. But I made no such claim. I claimed only that they both involve knowledge of some kind or other.
For my specific purposes, the analogy requires only the following parallel between the two cases. Because we, like bats, are capable of sensory experience (considered as a general mode of cognition), we can raise the question of what it is like to be a bat, but without actually being aimed by nature toward that specific (bat-like) sort of experiential knowledge. That’s why our ability to raise the question does not entail a sense of deprivation. Similarly, as rational creatures, human beings in a state of “pure nature,” like human beings to whom the supernatural end of the beatific vision has actually been given, can raise the question of what it would be to have direct knowledge of the divine essence. But because those in a state of “pure nature” are nevertheless not directed naturally toward such knowledge, it does not follow that they would experience that inability as a deprivation.
S. Hart isn’t too keen on my characterization of D. B. Hart as a pantheist. He begins his criticism as follows:
Feser finally accuses Hart of collapsing God and world into an undifferentiated unity, committing him to pantheistic heresy. Indeed, there are points in isolation that seem to suggest this, such as the line, “God is all that is.” However, Hart is nearly always quick to qualify this response. In this case, he follows it with, “Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not ‘the other’ of anything.”
End quote. So far, then, S. Hart’s defense of D. B. Hart against the charge of pantheism seems to be: “True, that first unambiguous statement sure looks like pantheism – but hey, check out this second, clear-as-mud statement!” Not promising. But actually, there’s more, so let’s move on. S. Hart then writes:
There is, then, a nonidentical relationship between God and creation, though such a distinction is much more fluid than anything Feser will allow.
End quote. How S. Hart can be so sure of this, I have no idea. After all, in the line cited as mitigating the pantheism, D. B. Hart says that what is (only seemingly?) not God actually “is God in the mode of what is other than God” and that “God is not ‘the other’ of anything.” Which sounds to me like a God-world collapse after all, as far as I can make anything of it. If there’s any wiggle room here, though, that’s not because D. B. Hart has been more precise than I let on in my review, but precisely because he is so imprecise. Anyway, to continue on with S. Hart:
[Feser] thus compares Hart to Spinoza, apparently unaware or unconvinced by Carlyle’s reevaluation of Spinoza as a panentheist…
As further proof, Feser cites Hart’s positive treatment of Advaita and Vishishtadvaita Vedantic thought, apparently unaware that “Vishishtadvaita” means qualified nondualism. These very qualifications prevent any flat identity of God and world.
End quote. Well, yes, Seth, I know what “Vishishtadvaita” means, but thanks for the free lesson. I also know something our erudite grad student appears not to, viz. that “pantheism” is, historically, a very fluid concept. It needn’t always entail “an undifferentiated unity” (to borrow S. Hart’s phrase) but can include doctrines that allow for some kind of differentiation between God and the world even while affirming an ultimate unity between them. That’s precisely why everyone from Vedanta thinkers to Parmenides to Marcus Aurelius to John Scotus Eriugena to Spinoza to Hegel to Einstein to Deepak Chopra have – rightly or wrongly, and despite their important differences – all sometimes been classified as pantheists. If you check out the old Catholic Encyclopedia , you’ll see that it emphasizes the great diversity of forms of pantheism, opines that there probably has been no pure form of pantheism, and proposes that the key notes common to the varieties of doctrine labeled “pantheist” are as follows:
• Reality is a unitary being; individual things have no absolute independence – they have existence in the All-One, the ens realissimum et et perfectissimum of which they are the more or less independent members;
• The All-One manifests itself to us, so far as it has any manifestations, in the two sides of reality-nature and history;
• The universal interaction that goes on in the physical world is the showing forth of the inner aesthetic teleological necessity with which the All-One unfolds his essential being in a multitude of harmonious modifications, a cosmos of concrete ideas (monads, entelechies). This internal necessity is at the same time absolute freedom or self-realization.
End quote. Now, I submit that D. B. Hart’s position is pretty clearly pantheist by the Catholic Encyclopedia’s standard. (Indeed, some of that gauzy passage almost sounds like Hart could have written it.) And this is extremely important from the point of view of Catholic theology, because the Encyclopedia reflects what Catholic writers had in mind by “pantheism” in the era when , the , , Pope Pius XI, and repeatedly made a point of condemning pantheism as a clear and present danger.
Naturally, I am well aware that philosophers of religion and theologians these days prefer to draw sharper terminological boundaries between “pantheism,” “panentheism,” and so on. However, being the card-carrying reactionary unreconstructed Baroque Scholastic manualist Thomist that I am, I am more interested in what the Catholic theological tradition has had in view when analyzing and criticizing pantheism. And I think it is pretty obvious that Hart’s views fall within the range of doctrines that Pius IX, Vatican I, Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, et al. would condemn as “pantheist.”
I don’t think D. B. Hart would deny this; on the contrary, I think he’d wear it as a badge of honor, at least in private when knocking back a few drinks with the posse. Certainly he is not shy in You Are Gods about the fact that his views cannot be reconciled with what was hammered out as official Catholic teaching on matters of nature and supernature by the time of Pius XII.
It is also rather rich for S. Hart to accuse me, out of one side of his mouth, of being insufficiently precise in my analogies – while, out of the other side of his mouth, approvingly citing D. B. Hart’s imprecise and inconsistent formulations as evidence that he ought to be acquitted of the charge of pantheism. Rich, but not in the least surprising, given that “Heads, Hart wins; tails, Hart’s critics lose” is standard shtick with the Hart fan base.
S. Hart’s remaining point vis-à-vis the pantheism issue is one I confess to being unable to make heads or tails of. It seems to amount to this: “Because Feser himself routinely defends the form/matter and essence/existence distinctions, he cannot consistently complain when Hart deploys these notions in what Feser takes to be a pantheist manner.” But this is such an obvious non sequitur that I fear I must be missing something. Any reader who can come up with a more plausible interpretation will win a no-prize.
Well, that’s it. I’m sorry if I’ve been a little hard on Hart the younger, despite his asking for it. But I’m sure he won’t mind, delighting as he does in “playful” invective and all!