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Following are abstracts of previous and upcoming presentations.
“Anselm on Faith Seeking Understanding: Is Something Missing?” Loyola History of Philosophy Roundtable (workshop), February 16, 2018 (upcoming).
In the 11th century, Anselm initiated the scholastic project of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum; FQI) by arguing that it’s both permissible and spiritually beneficial for faithful Christians to use reason to understand what they already believe. But because Anselm does not give a precise definition or description of faith, he does not successfully show how faith and reason can coexist. And there are good reasons, even Anselmian reasons, to think that they cannot. This is not a fatal flaw in Anselm’s philosophy, but an indication that something is missing. In this paper my goal is to show that without an account of faith that explains how it can coexist with rational argument, Anselm’s FQI is incomplete and vulnerable to major objections, but armed with such an account, it can escape them. First, I will give a brief account of FQI as Anselm sees it. Then I will give a powerful objection to FQI (the “Damning Objection,” DO), based on an intuitive definition of faith. Then we will look at Anselm’s defense of FQI, and conclude that it is insufficient to defend him from DO, since he cannot refute its definition of faith. Finally, we will change our strategy and consider what kind of redefinition of faith would allow Anselm to escape DO. We conclude that the account of faith given by William of Auxerre (d. 1231) solves Anselm’s problem.
“Delighting in the First Truth: William of Auxerre’s Intellectual Faith in its Historical Context.” Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ satellite session, American Catholic Philosophical Association Meeting, November 2017
In this paper I illuminate William of Auxerre’s philosophy of religious belief by placing it in its historical context. We begin with Aristotle, who did not developed a philosophy of religious belief as such, but put together a philosophical toolbox that medieval thinkers would use to do so.
According to Avicenna, our Islamic representative, religious belief occurs for most at the level of the imagination; for some, it occurs at the level of intellect and is identical with philosophy. In both cases, the goal is to achieve ultimate happiness by contemplating the highest parts of reality, perfecting one’s mind as much as one can.
In earlier Latin thought, three issues are relevant: first, the order of the virtues, and whether faith or charity came first; second, the role of reason in theology; third, the mystical passage from knowledge to understanding and wisdom.
William of Auxerre spoke on these Latin, Christian issues using the same Aristotelian resources as the Islamic philosophers- and yet his conclusions are strikingly different. William thinks that ultimate happiness is gained by cognizing the highest reality (God), so the first virtue must be faith, the supernatural virtue by which we see God. Faith is knowledge, located in the intellect, not the imagination. Faith ensures the truth of the articles of faith, which are the first principles of the theology, a deductive Aristotelian science. Since faith is a kind of knowledge, it is perfectly compatible with rational proof. By understanding the reasoning behind the articles of faith (philosophy), and working out their implications (theology), our faith-knowledge is transformed into the spiritual gift of understanding, and then, combined with charity, into wisdom, the highest contemplative virtue.
William’s questions would have been familiar to his Latin predecessors; the Aristotelian resources he used to answer them would have been familiar to the Islamic philosophers; but despite (or because of) his familiarity with both traditions, the answers he gave were his own, and seem to have influenced later Latin philosophy of religious belief.
“The Drunk Geometer: Philoponus on De Anima 3.4-8.” Aquinas and the Arabs Conference, Notre Dame, August 25, 2017.
In his commentary on the De Anima, Philoponus provides an interpretation of the agent intellect that appears quite reasonable at first, yet lacks an analogue in the tradition. His account of the potential intellect, by contrast, is extremely un-Aristotelian, at least according to standard interpretations of Aristotle. He argues that the agent intellect merely refers to a human teacher, i.e., a previously actualized intellect imparting its actuality to another human’s potential intellect, on analogy with formal impression on matter. The potential intellect, by contrast, is in second potentiality rather than first potentiality, and in fact in a special kind of second potentiality, a doctrine which he explains by claiming that Aristotle believed in Platonic reincarnation and recollection. Philoponus’ account of the potential intellect allows him to answer some important objections to his doctrine of the active intellect. On the final analysis, while Philoponus’ account ultimately fails as an interpretation of Aristotle, his arguments are surprisingly cogent and his unusual position quite coherent. Moreover, his objections to some standard readings of Aristotle appear to be valid. Whatever the final verdict on Philoponus’ commentary, I hope to vindicate him as a skillful, if inaccurate, interpreter of Aristotle.
“Faith and Reason in William of Auxerre.” Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ satellite session, American Catholic Philosophical Association Meeting, November 4, 2016.
William of Auxerre accommodates philosophy within traditional theology by developing a unique, Aristotelian psychology of faith. Faith is a supernatural perfection of the intellect that causes the mind to directly perceive the truth of the articles of Christian religion, in an analogous way to the mind’s perception of natural first principles. As such, faith is not inferior to knowledge, but is one of the most certain forms of knowledge. Theology, therefore, is a deductive, Aristotelian science, with the articles of faith as its first principles. These first principles, however, are also conclusions in another science (philosophy). William argues that it is possible for one mind to simultaneously believe a proposition as a first principle in one science and be aware of a demonstrative proof for that proposition in another science. Curiously, this entails that one can, for example, have faith that God exists and know how to prove God’s existence. This means that philosophy is free to offer proofs for the very propositions that theology takes as primary. In fact, William thinks that such philosophical work is necessary for theology. First, it is a means to converting others to Christianity and refuting heresy. Second, it is a means to mystical contemplation. William interprets the traditional progression of faith-understanding-wisdom on Aristotelian lines, understanding faith as mere quia knowledge of the articles of faith and understanding (intellectus) as knowledge propter quid, the ability to provide philosophical justification for the articles of faith. Understanding, in turn, leads to wisdom or sapientia, experiential knowledge of God. Thus William not only accommodates philosophy within theology, but makes it a necessary part of sacred doctrine.
“Necessary Being in Aquinas and Avicenna.” Classical Philosophy in the Lands of Islam and its Influence, International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, Michigan), May 14, 2016.
In this paper I correct an error made in the interpretation of Aquinas’ interpretation of Avicenna’s modal metaphysics. Aquinas explicitly rejects Avicenna’s definition of possibility and necessity and provides a modal proof of God that derives from Maimonides or Averroes rather than Avicenna. Beatrice Zedler argues that he did so because Avicenna’s doctrine of possibles entails that possible essences preexist God’s act of creation and act as a restraint on God’s creative power. In order to avoid this consequence, Aquinas had to reject Avicenna’s whole notion of necessity and possibility. Olga Lizzini disputes this “essentialist” reading of Avicenna, but accepts that this was how Aquinas read Avicenna. Lizzini is correct about Avicenna, but incorrect about Aquinas. Aquinas is perfectly aware of Avicenna’s true doctrine, and in fact largely adopts it. In De Potentia 5.3, Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of possibility. First, there is possibility within some creatures, which he defines in Averroistic terms as a principle of corruption caused by matter. This is Aquinas’ usual use of the term. Second, there is possibility with respect to God’s power, with respect to which all creatures are possible. Even if Aquinas does not typically use “possibility” in this Avicennian sense, it is part of his metaphysics. I conclude, then, that Avicenna’s conception of God as the Necessary Being and proof thereof are perfectly compatible with Thomistic metaphysics. I also examine textual evidence that shows that Aquinas was aware of the compatibility of Avicenna’s metaphysics with his own and did not (mis)interpret Avicenna in the way that Zedler and Lizzini have stated. Finally, I argue that Aquinas may have had epistemological or pedagogical (rather than metaphysical) motivations for not including Avicenna’s proof among the Five Ways.
“The Sources of William of Auxerre’s First Two Proofs of God.” KULeuven Institute of Philosophy Graduate Student Conference (Leuven, Belgium), March 27, 2015.
William of Auxerre has sometimes been portrayed as a theological reactionary. But in reality, he was an innovative thinker and an early adopter of Greco-Arabic philosophy. As evidence, I offer his first two proofs of God’s existence found in Summa Aurea 1.1, which I argue derive from Avicenna. In the first proof he argues that, since every effect has a cause, there must be a first cause. Normally such proofs appeal to the impossibility of an infinite regress. But William’s does not. Rather, he argues that, even if the chain of caused causes were infinite, the entire set (universitas) of caused causes would require a cause, which must logically be an uncaused cause. This curious move is not found Boethius, John of Damascus, or Gundissalinus, but it is found in Avicenna. I conclude that Avicenna’s proof of a First Cause in Shifa Metaphysics 8.1 is the source for William’s first proof of God. Curiously, however, William’s argument resembles the version in Avicenna’s Najat much more closely, even though the Najat was never translated into Latin. In any case, the derivation of William’s first proof from Avicenna may also help explain why his second proof is almost identical to the first, other than changes in vocabulary.