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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Some Thoughts on Metaphysical Imagination

Heidegger had a fascinating reflection on brokenness as a precondition for theoretical contemplation: man is caught-up in his projects, his tools, his possibilities, and only when a tool breaks down does it register before his consciousness as a distinct object of reflection. Similarly, it seems, all one needs is a break-down in communication for his words, his conceptual "tools," to suddenly appear before him in their brokenness.

It's become rather obvious to me that in a few conversations with friends of different theological and philosophical persuasions, very little conversing was actually taking place. A good deal of talking-past one another, however, was taking place. Even after acknowledging that the vocabulary was commonly held, equivocity was rampant. The metaphysical words and concepts I was employing struck the ears of my compatriots with quite a different ring than they did my own, with startlingly different implications. This is, of course, an experience common to anyone engaged in real dialogue; but in these particular instances, it was clear that our misunderstandings stemmed from very different ways of imagining these concepts.

So I began to think more about this as a hermeneutical issue: it seems that the imagination has an often unspoken role in our metaphysical judgments and conceptual abstractions. In the abstract, our concepts are never beyond the "spin," the "light" of certain "shapes" and "shades" that are seemingly essential to the act of understanding. They bear the mark, as it were, of our mode of knowing, which must always arise from within the dynamis of sensation. We often understand the relations between concepts analogously in terms of the relations between spatial, sensible things present to the imagination. This is natural because in a real sense the latter relations are more "well known" to us than the former.

Yet while analogy with the imagination opens for us the possibility of rational reflection with abstract notions, the imagination also has the ability to mask the real relations between concepts and thus hinder understanding. In one conversation, a Barthian friend and I were discussing the possibilities of knowing God. He immediately objected to my use of metaphysical language concerning God ala Aquinas, because he was quite convinced that the notions of "essence," "nature," and "substance" implied that the Angelic Doctor was positing a dangerous "residue" of God separated from His actions; a stale, frozen, immutable "sub-stance" "behind" His activities, splitting God in two. Barth's post-metaphysical "actualism" takes its cue from such a perceived dilemma and seeks to posit the inseparability between essence and existence, being and action, in God (in a way that "substantialist," metaphysical theologies cannot).

This struck me as a rather odd charge, especially because it is precisely Aquinas's metaphysical theology which ensures that such a dilemma is radically foreign to God. Aquinas's vision of God as Pure Act renders any distinction between nature and action in God, quite literally, unreal. It was clear that in my friend's mind, the relationships between the metaphysical concepts were imagined in such a way that notions of "substance" were adorned with images of frozen stasis, impersonal abstraction, radical separation from the realm of the living, moving, acting reality. Such a thing can surely have no place in God; so we must think of Him in "unmetaphysical ways." Yet a relatively-close reading of Aquinas reveals that he did not at all imagine substance in this light when applied to God. In fact, it is Aquinas's metaphysical "actualism" that allows us to imagine God's substance in ways more radically active, dynamic, and personal than approaches which fail to account for his distinctions. For St. Thomas, all thoughts of stasis, residue, rigidity, and inaction stem from the principle of potentia; yet God's substance is completely devoid of potentia. It is all actus: that principle of ontological life, vibrancy, action, dynamis, reality. Actus is the very energy of being. Aquinas has the resources to show that God is not static, but nor is he "active" or "affective" in the imperfect ways that finite beings are. He is only "immobile" because he is waaaayyyyyy too dynamic: He is more active than we could ever properly imagine, and this because His substance IS His action. So according to Aquinas, his metaphysical principles imply a "picture" of God that is the complete opposite of what my friend believed.

Other such metaphysical imaginings came to the fore in other discussions. Metaphysical participation in the doctrine of creation, for instance, was suspect because participation was imagined as a kind of "robbery" of God's Being and an attempt to "grasp" and "possess," to "withhold" something from God that was rightfully His. Imagined thus, participation and the analogia entis were out. Further, as I've heard it charged, the analogy of being set up a philosophical mediator between God and man that challenges the unique mediating role of Christ; and is therefore an attempt to replace Christ with metaphysics. Again, we find traditional metaphysical concepts imbued with certain imagined relations and implications they simply never had. The hidden premise in this case is a univocal ontology, wherein God's Being is implicitly thought of as taking up the same kind of "space" as finite being, even when the theologian wants to think of God in completely equivocal terms. If "being" is imagined as a univocal, seamless garment, than it is no wonder theologians would be forced to conclude (in quasi-Maimonidean fashion) that God's Being (whatever we mean by this) must be entirely unrelated to finite being, paradoxical as it sounds. The mistaken univocity unfolds into the equally mistaken equivocity, ending with the inevitable conclusion that God is entirely unknowable and His creatures reveal nothing of Him. Aquinas and his kin would have been dumbfounded by the claim that an analogy of being were somehow incompatible with the mediation of Christ, as if one had to choose between a metaphysical truth or the Son of God. Rather, I'd venture to say that for the Aquinas the former mediation (ontological) is presupposed by the latter (the Christological). One could indeed argue that, in the mind/eternal intention of God, the Christological mediation is primary (eternally preceding actual creation), nonetheless it in no way implies that somehow ontological participation is thereby an idolatrous replacement. It is, rather, simply what is implied by the doctrine of creation if one is to avoid reducing this doctrine to nonsense.

So it seems that perhaps a vital part of truly understanding the theories of the past is actually understanding how we should imagine the concepts that the theories employ. And if in fact we simply read the texts but fail to attend to how we conceive these concepts according to analogy with what is imagined, than we could completely misunderstand what our concepts imply. We would then judge them and their value improperly. We may end up sending metaphysics to the gallows for crimes it simply did not and does not commit (but actually protects against)!

Pax Christi,


  • At 12/29/2008 5:44 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    You've hit on a very insightful element of thought that too often goes unnoticed by even the most supposedly most distinguished scholars: the imagination.

    Even more difficult, it seems to me, than recognizing the momentary employment of images within a certain conversation, is the long term investment that occurs with respect to concepts at the level of one's cognitive development.

    Your post is very much in the spirit of one of Thomas's concerns, which also unfortunately goes unnoticed by many of his greatest devotees: pedagogy. Regarding this long term investment with respect to educational philosophy, in one of his earliest works, Thomas cites an important observation from Aristotle: "A slight initial error eventually grows to vast proportions." (the opening of his De Ente et Essentia).

    I think your post provides a crucial insight regarding this truth - how delicate are our imaginations! And how easily our society feeds our imaginations on such unhealthy images (violence, sexual promiscuity, exploitation of the human person etc.) all of which malnourish this most important faculty. It's no wonder in our times metaphysics has taken such a hit: it is the one science that, perhaps more than any other, requires one to have a strong imagination. Our society seems to be populating itself with persons of emaciated imaginations.

    Imagination is the key to all mediation. When the imagination is so weakened and malnourished, one is almost forced to substitute the hard, creative, effort of mediation with 'external' authorities: crude "literalism," a misconstrued sense of actualism (which, as your post reflects, seems to aspire beyond mediation into some kind of fictional immediacy), even (argh!) papalism and magisterialism I think must be included here (when they are misused). If only we could recapture the importance of imagination!

    Where's Mr. Rogers when we need him?

  • At 12/30/2008 3:32 PM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    Rather then respond to the charge that metaphysics replaces Christ by claiming that that assumes an underlying univocal ontology, couldn't one also distinguish between natural and supernatural knowledge of God? Analogy (as well as Scotistic univocity should one admit it) would then be a way of knowing basic elements of the divine nature, but nothing pertaining to Revelation; Christ is still needed to complete the picture and actually bring salvation.

  • At 1/01/2009 11:32 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Lee -

    I haven't read enough Scotus to understand the relation between his notion of univocity as it relates to Thomas's analogia.

    Could you, if you have some time, explain a bit of that?

    I have read the lamblasting that Scotus has taken in these 'postmodern' times. At this point, I am suspicious of those who so easily attack Scotus, and would love to hear one explain him who has familiarity with him.


  • At 1/03/2009 12:08 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for your comments. Your point about pedagogy is a natural extension of what I was thinking of and takes my concerns deeper. In my follow up I gesture towards this with the few examples in the Western tradition that come to mind. But even at a more practical level, imagination has a crucial role in the "average joe's" reception of metaphysical and theological truths, even when he is not himself doing metaphysics or theology proper. Fragile indeed!

    Reason enough to blind oneself in the presence of VH1's reality show lineup. Blah!!!

    Pax Christi,

  • At 1/03/2009 12:15 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the response. A good question. I agree one could make such a response, and it is one I think rather obvious. But my initial thought is that the distinction between natural and supernatural orders epistemically presupposes an analogical account of being, and thus attacking the issue via reason/Revelation might only be a prelude to a more fundamental, underlying disagreement. I’d love to hear more of what you think.

    Personally, more than one conversation with intelligent friends have passed through questions of natural and supernatural knowledge to the metaphysical questions, mainly because they adamantly deny the possibility of any natural knowledge of God, such an approach has proven unhelpful lest I first work to establish the possibility of natural knowledge. I’ve seen here another example of a curious way of imagining the situation, because they seem to presuppose that there anything like a limited knowledge of God or a non-quidditative knowledge of God, or a knowledge of God under the formality of Cause, etc., is unimaginable. For them it seems knowledge of God, if it truly is “of God,” can only be knowledge under the formality of God’s inner personal Being, which of course can only be revealed at His own discretion. In other words, if you are trying to describe God like you would describe Peter qua-person-walking-in-the-distance (though you can’t yet recognize him as Peter), you are describing only “Not-God.” You can only know and describe God as you would describe Peter-qua-Peter, when he reveals himself to you out of the shadows and tells you about his life story and his family and his personality. I would venture to say that perhaps there is a confusion between epistemic degrees and ontological reality: such that the differences and distinctions in modes and degrees of knowledge, and the limited “picture” each mode attains of God, are mistakenly posited as attaining different material objects (different candidates for God); rather than constituting different formal objects (but one material object). So because proofs lead us to something like Aristotle’s First Mover, and that certainly is not a knowledge of YHWH, they lead us to a false god. Something in that ballpark.

    Some of these friends actually deny the intellect’s ability to attain real knowledge of the finite world, let alone God. Although, interestingly some of them do seem to think that a First Cause can be reasoned to, but that it’s simply “Not-God.” A position that seems to me eminently self-defeated.

    Anyway, I too would like to hear from you about Scotus's univocity because at this point while I find the popular attacks of Scotus suspect, I also find it difficult to conceive of any alternatives to Thomas's conception of analogia.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 1/06/2009 4:58 AM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    I suspect that some of the flak Scotus has taken is due (aside from the obvious problem that its hard and in latin) to the fact that his idea of what theology is is diametrically opposed to some modern projects, such as radical orthodoxy (this business about sciences having "secular space" and the evacuation of philosophy etc.); Scotus thinks that theology is neither subalternating nor subalternated, and probably not even a real science (all these terms to be taken in their Aristotelian senses). So in a sense there is not even a connection to metaphysics. The modern hatred (or love, if you're Deleuze) is piggybacked onto the age-old dispute with the thomists.

    Univocity itself is rather too difficult to explain in a blog comment, but i'll hit some highlights.

    1. History. Sadly, to understand what Scotus is doing generally entails reading a great deal of his contemporaries and knowing some of the historical circumstances within the franciscan order (such as the prohibition on reading Aquinas without the corrections of william de la mare). This is especially true of univocity, because the main target here is Henry of Ghent. Thomas does not really come up, and the conception of univocity that Scotus develops is completely different than what Thomas calls 'univocity'. Also of import here is a strain of Aristotelian interpretation in which certain sciences yield certain kinds of knowledge, and 'scientists' working in those fields have only a certain set of conceptual tools, or perspectives, if you will, to work with. One might tentatively say, then, that the thomistic conception of analogy would hold on the metaphysical level. Scotus' discussion, however is on the logical level, the level of concepts. Here the only options are equivocity and univocity (and anyway, the part of aristotle that thomas adapts into his theory of analogy is a form of equivocity).

    2. Conceptual Univocity. The main discussion of univocity is Ordinatio I d.3 pars 1 qq.1-2 (i'm on vacation, that might not be all of it). He begins this by affirming his belief in analogy, but says God can also be known in an univocal concept (note, this is a concept; we are talking about conceptual, not 'real' univocity; we are not talking about beings here, or real similarity). Following this statement he gives roughly ten arguments attempting to prove that the concept of being is other than and univocal to the concept of God and the concept of a creature (amid much criticism of henry of ghent). T

    hat's pretty much all it amounts to; conceptual agreement. In later questions and distinctions he denies that there is any corresponding community to this univocal concept, that is, that there is any reality that the intellect is abstracting from to form the concept. He also discusses it in relation to being and species and tries to show that his views do not entail that being is a genus, or that being is logically prior to God, the so-called "descent of being" problem.

    All of these issues were taken up by his contemporaries and modified or rejected, even by his own students. Things didn't settle down until the battle lines were drawn in the late 14th century and it became a simple matter of defending one's doctor against the other side.

    I hope i've said something substantive. the other alternative is just to quote his arguments or summarize them. The thomas angle is quite tricky, however, as I am not sure he ever read the discussion in the summa, though he might have read the sentences commentary of thomas.

    A further complication is the development of his own ideas; he switched to univocity mid-career, due to (I suspect) reflection on the implication of the scientific 'perspectivalism'.


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