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

Friday, July 23, 2010

It was Ockham, in the library, with the revolver

Since seeing Christopher Nolan's Inception, I've had more consistent and elaborate dreams than I've had in years. Last night I dreamed that I was sitting in a hospital bed with a network of wires and tubes linking my veins to an enormous life support system, pumping and churning away at my bedside. As I explained to my faceless companion, this machine enabled me to read with superhuman speed and attention, abolishing the need to stop for food or sleep. In my lap was an enormous medieval tome over which my eyes were furiously racing. My mission was Dan Brown-esque: there was a "code" I had to break in order to unveil some great conspiracy and save civilization as we know it. All of the catastrophes of the modern age, I said, actually resulted from Ockham's metaphysical errors; so to understand the evils threatening us, I had to unravel the mysteries of his thought and articulate how and why he went so drastically wrong. The fate of the world depended on it (though there were no albino monks trying to kill me).

Apart from reflecting my subconscious desire to make the most abstract intellectual work seem at home in an action movie, this episode may have been influenced by the horde of genealogies in contemporary theology and philosophy that peg Ockham as the root of all conceptual evil. I'm no Freud, but I'll bet it had something to do with me recently reading Mark Taylor's take on Ockham in his latest work, After God (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Taylor's basic argument is, in many ways, a variation on a well-known theme: secularity is an intrinsically religious phenomenon; it has a theological heritage and is coterminous with certain modern forms of religious expression. But as modernity is intimately linked with the secular world, Taylor devotes most of his book to an analysis of the modern subject and the internal divisions it harbors. He does hold that the seeds of the secular lie in the most basic distinctions between natural and supernatural, and thus in some of the oldest theological affirmations; but he believes the real inventor of the modern self is the theological Luther, not the philosophical Descartes. Ockham, however, plays a pivotal role because he is the one who constructs the theological "schema," the network of beliefs about God, man, and the cosmos, in which Luther's invention finds meaning. Ockham's voluntarism, his affirmation of the groundlessness of existence, his opposition of faith to reason, his latent empiricism, etc. are all principles without which the Reformation, and the secularism that mirrors it, would be inconceivable. As time rolls on and the modern subject is compounded in an ever vaster array of forms and frames, it becomes possible to see in Ockham the groundwork of 19th century romanticism, Nietzsche's will to power, Freud's psychoanalysis, British analytic thought, Continental semiology, and postructuralism (After God, p.60). What's most interesting is Taylor's citation of the work of Pierre Alferi (Derrida's son), who draws a direct line from Ockham's "nominalism" to Derrida's deconstruction. Because language for Ockham is general and existents are singular, real entities can't be represented linguistically. The link between words and things breaks down and "in semiotic terms, signifiers, which appear to point to independent signifieds, actually refer to other signifiers" (p.58). Ockham's theory of language unfolds a critique of metaphysics, resulting in a vision of the world as "an ungrounded play of signs," "unanchored by knowable referents" (p.58-59). Hence, Ockham was postmodern before modernity even got going. Eat your heart out, Lyotard.

That is certainly a lot to put on Ockham's plate. I have reservations, but I have to say that I don't think this line of argument is entirely wrong. In fact, I'm more and more convinced that something like this has got to be right, if for no other reason than that so many highly intelligent people with whom I agree on so many other matters say just this sort of thing. Folks like Louis Dupre have at least earned the benefit of the doubt, even if they are still hovering around the most decisive and compelling kind of argument.

Now I haven't read nearly enough Ockham to vindicate or refute accounts like Taylor's (nor, for that matter, have I read enough romanticism, Nietzsche, Freud, Analytic, semiology, or poststructuralism). But what I suspect is necessary to vindicate these kinds of arguments is a very detailed and technical analysis of Ockham's thought in the terms of medieval metaphysics and in relation to the metaphysical alternatives of his contemporaries. This kind of supplement is often the most difficult to give because it is the kind native to specialists and not to the kind of scholars likely to trace shifting ideas across centuries and radically disparate frameworks. It seems you have to become so familiar with the technicalities that if you didn't set out to be a specialist, you'll probably become one in spite of yourself. But how else could one build a truly solid case? How else see exactly what in Ockham's account is common, what is novel, and what the immediate implications of that novelty are?

And so I direct you to James Chastek's recent post on Ockham and the via moderna. In this short piece one sees the kind of grappling with Ockham that gestures in the right direction. He addresses the original Thomist beef with Ockham on a metaphysical matter in all its technicality. James gets points right off the bat for noting how improperly framed Ockham narratives often are: Ockham never identified as a Nominalist and he did not deny universals. We often simply forget why Ockham was charged with denying the objectivity of thought: his denial of the reality of categorical relations. As I understand it, when one follows Ockham in affirming only the reality of relations secundum dici, all relations are reducible to non-relative categories: either a substance or an accident as the modification of that substance. Hence without a real relation, a "to another" in the order of being that the mind's concepts can be patterned on, our signs' ability to "get to" their objects is undermined. Check out James' post for more detailed explanations.

I will quote this short piece of it, though, to support my belief that such grappling certainly can terminate in the same kind of conclusions reached by folks like Taylor and Alferi:
Thus, while Ockham is not a Nominalist, nor does he deny that the mind has true universals, we Thomists still argue that his teaching on relations, if followed to its logical conclusion, leads directly (and almost immediately) to the celebrated modern problem of objectivity, and ultimately to the post-modern denial of the possibility of any non-arbitrary connection between signs and concepts on the one hand and reality on the other.

When we notice the significance of Ockham denying universals, we see more clearly why he is the father of the via moderna. After all, the soul of modern thought is not so much an explicit teaching on universals, but a struggling with the “problem of objectivity”. For we Thomists, this problem is not a pseudo-problem, or a “Cartesian turn” that caught everyone unaware with a deadly objection, or a mental illness that needs to get purged by backgammon, kicking a stone. Most of all, it’s not a problem that we explain away by saying that the objectivity of thought is just obvious or proved by some mysterious intuition of objectivity. Rather, the problem of objectivity is simply the inevitable consequence of the (usually tacit) belief that all that exists is either a subject, or something whose whole being is a modification of that subject. Sad anther [sic] way, it is a consequence of the (usually unproven) denial of the reality of categorical relations.

Even though Ockham-lovers might challenge that characterization, it's the kind of reasoning that makes me feel much more secure in my a priori suspicion of all things Ockham.

Pax Christi,


  • At 7/24/2010 10:37 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    So yet another monograph whose title begins with the preposition "after", right up there with After Virtue, After Writing et al.
    I myself am waiting for the biography of Mr. Miagai-know-karate, titled After After (or, more in keeping with the actual words of the film: "Afta Afta.

    I'm going to write one called After Schooling , and one about fatherhood called After Freedom.

    Fine post.

  • At 7/24/2010 2:56 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

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  • At 7/24/2010 2:58 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    I hear ya. I'm getting the impression that to really dazzle the intellectual world one needs to come up with an original "After" title. Nothing else says "epic!" and "paradigm shifting!" quite like that.

    On a related note, we desperately need to get more creative now that the generation of "Post-" thinkers is passing the torch. We HAVE to do better than "Post-Post-Modernism" or "Post-Post-Secularism." Talk about a dull and taxing precedent to set.

    We could always rebel by starting a "Before Virtue" or "Before Modernity," etc. trend. Don't know if "Before God" would really work though...

    Pax Christi,

  • At 7/26/2010 3:53 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 7/26/2010 3:57 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    I'm with you, Pat.
    Actually, in a very interesting way, the title "Before God" works as well, if not better, than "After God," and here's why:

    OF course, both titles if taken in any temporally literal way refer to non-times and non-spaces.

    But, if the referent of the word "God" is taken to be the conceptual determination that gets kicked around so cavalierly, then "Before God" at least releases certain realities from the hold that the referent for God in question takes upon the mind.
    This would, I think, prove quite advantageous for, say, the transcendental Divine Names inasmuch as they would be released from the conceptual grip of the word "God" by referring to the before (which, when considered as a present reality is really a between....). Anyway, in transporting thought to a 'before' God, one can more freely think the agapaic original that comes under the limits of the name God.

    With the title "After God," though, the desired liberation from that same conceptual hold seems rather tightened, in a way akin to how the turn to the other in postmodernity is really a fiercer turn to the self inasmuch as it is really an attack on the self. "After God," for all its attempts to move beyond the word in any given attempt to critique any number of its referents, still drags in its wake the concept like a dying corpse. I wonder if this is in fact the problem with all of "post" anything: in trying to move beyond, they actually carry the shell of that which they attempt to move beyond in the very term that "post" is prefixed upon. And "after" seems to be no different.

    So - you may really be on to something there with your idea of writing works with the title "Before....".
    How funny if it actually were to catch on - to think it started on a whim on this very blog!

  • At 2/04/2011 1:26 PM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    I think I'll just stick to "After Academia: Why I just want to stay home and read primary sources"


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