With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Few More Thoughts...

If in fact we are beings whose mode of knowing is born from contact with the sensible, then one should expect all philosophical thought to analogously employ relations of the imagination. And it seems to me that very interesting ways of imagining traditional metaphysical concepts crop up all across the history of Western thought, especially in the rather dramatic narratives documenting where philosophy and theology have gone wrong and where they need to go from now on. But after reading even a fraction of the most well known pre-modern thinkers with a hermeneutic of generosity and a little sensitivity to historical context, I've come to wonder: how many of these narratives accurately draw out the real implications of what they critique? How many are based on "pictures" of the philosophical concepts that are actually contrary to the ways they were imagined before?

I tend to follow MacIntyre (loosely) in determining precisely what it means for any tradition of enquiry to progress and develop: crisis---the tradition lacks the intellectual resources to provide answers---draws from other traditions, expanding the tradition beyond its former borders; such a process would reasonably mark the way forward. So it seems that the grand narratives of metaphysical failure either accurately point out the real weakness of certain concepts or systems, allowing us to look beyond them and advance the tradition; or the weaknesses are imagined, based on relations the concepts themselves do not essentially imply, in which case a move away from such concepts could mark the regression of the tradition and the consequential rebirth of problems the concepts in question formerly solved.

It’s obvious that really bad imagining stems from some fundamental conceptual errors, and it may be that the failure to grasp the concepts in the first place leads to the perpetuation of a distorted metaphysical “picture.” But we are part of a tradition of enquiry. We are also embodied beings, encultured beings, and our intellectual development is influenced by so many aesthetic and non-conceptual elements. It is thus beyond doubt that the resources of our imagination form an essential part of what governs our proper reception of concepts from our philosophical forefathers. And it seems before any real conceptual agreement is reached, the first thing that becomes clear in discussion with others is the difference in how our imaginations are influencing our ideas.

So perhaps we should only offer our damning genealogies once we have, as a part of our thinking, done the proper hermeneutical step of regaining the ways in which our concepts are truly meant to be imagined. We may in fact expose fundamental disharmonies on the conceptual and imaginary planes, revealing that in fact our pictures do not match up with a rotten philosophical core. But the generosity has to be there, the waters have to be tested.

So many examples of the tales come to mind which I now view as hermeneutical failures, working with distorted metaphysical imaginations. I can list some rapid-fire (in no real order). Much of Descartes' legacy seems to provide a context in which the Scholasticism it inherited becomes literally unimaginable in the proper sense. There are the radical differences between Locke and Aquinas on divine nomination, and how radically different a vision of God results. There is the nature/grace extrinsicism that de Lubac critiques (though arguably without sufficient nuance) and its vision of a "layer-cake," "two-tier" order or Providence. There is Nietzsche and the reduction to the "will-to-power": the real man-behind-the curtain of metaphysics. When power enters the picture as a principle, suddenly metaphysical knowledge takes on a shade of staggering greed and possessiveness. The mind no longer gazes but now grabs, takes, and imposes.

Heidegger and those after him stand out as big ones, with the framing of "metaphysics" as stemming from an isolating, alienating, theoretical perspective abstracted from the real and the proper window of Being's revelation; the claim that underlying the notions of substance is a conception of false, timeless presence which creates a kind of "frozen" picture of being; the reduction of metaphysics and its talk of God under causal formality to "onto-theology" is a big one, and one that countless philosophers (and theologians) of the past century have accepted without question and spilled much ink to overcome; his dialectical and seemingly tragic vision of the ontological difference with its phenomenological lens of presence and absence; and of course the overall nihilistic destiny of metaphysics. And on top of this the folks like Derrida who seem to radicalize the tendencies and group a whole slew of traditional metaphysical concepts into one grand conspiracy of "presence" illegitimately dominating difference; with the "centre" imposing itself as a kind of inherently unwelcome god donning many masks and an insecure vantage point on which truth-claims struggle to balance themselves. In this line, and with figures like Gianni Vattimo, the traditional metaphysical concepts are inherently violent. The minds ascent to first principles is recast as the dislodging of truths from their true home in the Heraclitian flux of the real. It is an attempt to impose, to master the unmasterable, and is doomed to failure.

How far from the Fathers and the Scholastics! I do wonder if any of them, or Aristotle or Plato or countless others, would even recognize the metaphysical monsters these later thinkers are describing as their progeny!

I now take it as axiomatic that any decent philosopher or theologian simply must address the place of the metaphysical imagination in these narratives and their claims. And he must examine the concepts to see whether or not such images really do express them. So far in my own research I have found much of what these later ontologies attempt to overcome is actually sufficiently addressed by the theories they diagnose as flawed. I have found so very much that can be imagined in ways that are not only profoundly beautiful, but also address our modern philosophical concerns in ways that the via moderna claims to have sole dominion over. Perhaps what we need, and what we are largely missing, is an attempt not just to reclaim more traditional philosophical approaches, but to integrate them with modern ways of imagining. What life and vibrancy could come from theories and concepts thought to be long dead and buried! I say let the phoenix rise from the ashes if it may; and let us not be so quick to stamp it out before it does.

I am also far more convinced now of the absolute centrality of beauty for attaining truth (natural and supernatural). It is simply the kind of being that we are. If our imaginations are deformed, and we cannot recognize beauty in the harmonies of the bodily, the phenomenological, the sensible; then how can we hope to develop the resources to recognize true relations of the concepts our intellect attains to? Balthasar seems to be vindicated, at least in a general sense: with the loss of the Beautiful, the loss of the True and the Good follow. Theology as a whole, and Revelation itself, are thereby fundamentally hindered.

I also wonder, as Balthasar did: how many of the major problems in modern theology are due to the crises of the metaphysical imagination witnessed to in the narratives of modern philosophers?

Pax Christi,


  • At 12/31/2008 10:34 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    another thoughtful reflection, though the passionate urgency in your 'voice' seems to be growing.

    I would offer only this thought/concern:

    Since the imagination is most fundamentally a metaxological faculty, any overly deterministic schema that is imposed upon it stifles its true power.

    You bring this out quite eloquently with respect to the way that much of Modern thought treated its precedents. However, there appears to be a zeal in your reflection (perhaps its more rhetorical than anything, so take these observations with some salt) that could end up treating the moderns with the same imaginative anemia.

    Now, I wholly agree with your assessment that the so-called end of metaphysics arises from a deep confusion within the metaphysical imagination, which of course accounts also for a deep confusion in dialectics (one of Desmond's talking points).

    However, the great minds of modernity - for they are great, with their own relative beauty and vigorous insights into truth - have also contributed something important in its own right.

    I'm not saying you don't recognize this - I know full well that a thinker such as yourself does see the beauty in all thought.

    My point is that the metaxology of the imagination furnishes it with a power beyond accurately representing the thought of past thinkers - it also provides the one who wants it with the power to transfigure any 'portrait' or 'composition' of thought more fully into the light of truth. It harbors an interpretive power that elevates the interpreter beyond the object into its overdetermined excess where, quite often, its truth, goodness and beauty lie waiting with greater intensity (think of Mozart's interpretation of the piece that Salieri had composed for the King in that movie Amadeus, great scene).

    Imagination, like desire, are inherently metaxological faculties; thus, Desmond devotes a great deal of time to expounding these. In the case of the imagination, its metaxological character means that its power to mediate involves first and most fundamentally communal intermediation. It is a power that enables our cognitions to accurately represent another's thought via a double movement: we employ our predisposed images (concepts) in an act of outward mediation, but we open those images to the inward arrival of the objects being mediated. Thus, mediation of any object - material, or formal - involves a harmony of our own image-constituted intellectual activity, and the newly acquired images arriving from the object being engaged.

    So - I think it is important to also recognize the unique contribution that the moderns made to how we can understand the premoderns. As difficult as it may seem, our own judgments over modern misconstruals of premodern metaphysics may in fact be our own case of failing to properly imagine what these moderns are conveying. In this case, we miss out on yet another moment to perceive the beauty in human thought.

    After all, even if the charges against premodern metaphysics were not wholly accurate with every kind of metaphysics being forged, these charges at least enabled the cleansing of possible dangerous avenues that metaphysics always risks pursuing. Immunization that is thought to be a direct cleansing is still beneficial to the recipient.

    Hey - also, Happy New Year!

  • At 1/03/2009 12:30 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Again, thanks for your in depth response. Your concerns are important ones and your advice wise. You are right to see the potential for us to miss the beams in our eyes while we critique the splinters in the Moderns'. And I of course agree that there is a unique beauty to modern masters (I for one can't stop reading them!).

    As de Lubac says, a naive traditionalism will never do. My passion, though mostly rhetorical, is more moderately aimed at stories of some modern thinkers rather than their thought per se: those stories that seem to exhibit hermeneutical failure. They are simply a handful of examples that arise when I try to imagine how, for instance, Thomas would have responded to, say, Derrida in a conversation: how would that conversation progress from initial confusion? One could seemingly write an interesting dialogue with each describing the same principles in very different lights.

    Though as you note, we must be careful to avoid letting our own critiques of those stories become hermeneutical missteps of equal measure. The hermeneutic of generosity must always apply.

    The metaxological nature of the imagination is a fascinating thought, and one that (I hope) is at least implicit in my reflection and I wish had been explicit. One could write an entire post drawing out its metaxological dimensions...

    Pax Christi, and a Happy New Year!

  • At 1/04/2009 7:32 PM, Blogger Tu Agenda Musical said…

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  • At 1/04/2009 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    Could you expound upon the "modern senses of imagination" that you believe could breath new life into ancient modes of doing metaphysics? Do you have particular moderns in mind?

    I ask especially in regards to the German Idealist tradition. While we know that it, especially Hegel and Schelling, have proven fruitful for such as Balthasar and the Russian Sophiologists, I am also particularly interested in your response here because I am currently taken with the profound parallels I see in Desmond's "Augustinianization" of Hegel and Blondel's Augustinianization of German Idealism generally. Indeed the opening chapter of DDO could be a reprise of the final chapters of L'Action and parallels abound in all of Desmond's account of human transcending.

    What both of these offer, which I find lacking in even the best of Patristic and Medieval thought is a sense of the contigency of categories deployed in all knowing. However, against pragmatist appropriations of Hegel (as most of the original pragmatists started out Hegelians), they refuse such contigency resulting in a silencing of the speculative voice. It seems the promise is a genuinely benefical and post/modern account of how categorial thought is social and political and yet still co-mingling the mind with the real. However, the worry is whether such contigency may genuinely carry the weight of metaphysics. I am still waiting on thicker arguments from Desmond on individuation and maybe even "substance" which are cruicial the Dionysian-Thomist construals of analogy, primary-secondary causation, and "God as in some sense all things as the cause of all things" (precisely those things I would hope to argue in our current setting).

    Thanks ahead of time for any insights you have.



  • At 1/04/2009 7:49 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    You should write that dialogue, or perhaps get it going here, and maybe others will chime in.
    That would be an interesting and unique post and approach to this issue you raise.

    As always, you further articulate how well thought out and developed your thinking is!

  • At 1/13/2009 7:53 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    That's a great question, and some intriguing insights. I honestly haven't thought it through that thoroughly, and my reading of many of the moderns is trivial at best. However, it seems obvious that any metaphysics that can speak to the modern mind with the authority of truth must address that fact that we tend to think of the basic metaphysical "stuff" in different ways. In other words, it must address the mind that was born after the turn after the advent of nominalism, after the turn to the subject, after the universal reason of the Enlightenment, after the will-to-power, even after Heidegger. Surely this at least...

    Such points in our conceptual history have left us applying imagination differently in the act of understanding. But they certainly provide challenges and work that any metaphysics must address.

    For instance, specifically phenomenological-hermeneutical questions come to mind. Questions of contingency, as you point out, and situatedness; of the interpretive nature of understanding; of the structures of consciousness informing and to a certain degree shaping our encounter with being and how it reveals itself; etc. Honestly, if anything, it probably looks like what Desmond is doing: he seems to be offering an ontology that draws from a rich (very Neoplatonic-Augustinian, though as Cyril O'Regan says, "not un-Thomist") tradition of premodern thought in dialogue with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and of course Hegel.

    So in short, I think Desmond comes to mind as a kind of flag-bearer for reinvigorating metaphysics. Also, despite my "interpretive reservations," it seems like something Radical Orthodoxy is doing by attempting to bring the traditional (largely Neoplatonic) conception of participatory metaphysics back into the game as against a very deformed non-theocentric ontology governing modernity. And yet they attempt to do so through a kind of marshaling of the post-modern imagination.

    I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on the various "Augustinizations." My knowledge of Blondel and Hegel is meager at best.

    Pax Christi,


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