I presented this paper at the American Catholic Philosophical Association annual conference 2019 in Minneapolis. The paper is dedicated to the memory of Fr. James V. Schall who was an eminent Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy professor at Georgetown University in DC. The paper traces the origins of modernity from nominalism and its effects on philosophical and theological approaches to the natural law and our contemporary society.
Author Archives: John Ghostley
“The Connections Between Nominalism and Modernism: and Consequent Epistemological Error Causing Moral Subjectivism”
“All agents act for an end” according to their nature from Thomas Aquinas on natural philosophy. There is a real human nature and real essences which define what we are. For us humans, this includes being rationale animals that are persons, responsible for our choices and acts. Our acts define who we are as a persons making us better persons or diminishing who we are. We freely choose the good for us according to what we judge with our intellect as our good. We are not always correct. Sometimes our choices are not a choice of the highest good. We are moral agents. Other animals don’t make moral choices, but animals still act for what they perceive as a good according to their nature.
Real essences exist in things. They define the whatness of a thing, how it acts and its properties.. Among human beings some are more beautiful, more intelligent, richer, poorer and contribute more to the common good of society, but all humans ar equal. The reason for this is that human beings have a real essence and nature which makes them ends in themselves. This is the basis for human dignity. No human beings can be used as an object, but humans should be treated according to their human dignity as ends in themselves. We do not have the right to take innocent human life. If we have no real basis for our human dignity other than a social contract, as John Locke proposed, then there would be no real basis in reality for our equality as human beings. We would be subject to the power of governments, dictators and each other to be used as objects, which of course is evil.
There is a hierarchy of being. Some things have more worth than others. For instance a human being has more intrinsic worth and dignity than a plant. The plant is also good and has a nature. The plants acts in its existence according to its nature. Higher intelligence in a thing is a sign of its higher worth, as we see in human beings.
We know this instinctively if we listen to our conscience through what is called the powers of the natural law. If forced to choose, we would kill the plant rather than the human being. We know this instinctively and this judgement can grow or diminish throughout our lifetime based on ideas we believe in, choices we make and actions we take form our conscience over time for better or worse. Not all human beings are the same in the perfection of their potentiality into actuality of their goodness.
I believe that Mary the Mother of God is the most perfect human being who ever lived in time. She still lives in heaven. I also believe that Christ is more perfect, but Christ is a divine person with both a human and divine nature. Christ’s existence with two natures in one divine person is the mystery of the Incarnation. Belief in this teaching of Christianity is a matter of faith which was defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Humans are capable of believing this through faith as a power of the spiritual part of their nature, the soul. The soul of human beings is the form of our bodies. We are in our soul. Our soul is not in us, but we are in our soul. The soul is the animating source of life in us. We have the power to believe and choose to act in charity through participation in God’s grace which comes from our familial relationship with God and the many ways God is present to us.
The purpose built into a thing’s nature is called the final cause of its existence. The final cause is the source of a thing’s purpose or teleology which is received in the form and act of its existence. Matter has no intelligence. It is the form of a thing that has the intelligence that makes a thing what it is. All material things are composed of this matter and form. Our existence is an act because we can cease to exist in our nature and become something else through substantial change. Who supplies the form of our substance in the act of existence? It is the First Cause of all dependent beings. the Creator. We and all other things except God receive our existence and are dependent for our existence on the First Cause who cannot stop existing. God’s essence is His existence which is fully actualized. God shares existence with us out of love, which is Who and what God is. Our ultimate purpose is to be in participative communion with God and each other in heaven.
I think there is a causal link between nominalistic epistemology and voluntarism. Nominalism/conceptualism consider ideas in our minds as the source of concepts rather then real essences in things in the world outside our minds, as moderate realism believes. Voluntarism is the philosophical doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual’s sentient powers. I think this doctrine came from a percieved reduction in the range of reason which began with nominalist and conceptualist epistemology. Moderate realism believes humans know universal essences from an immaterial intellectual power in the soul. The first act of this intellectual power of the mindis abstraction where universal concepts are abstracted from sense objects recieved from particular material things outside our minds in the real world. This is followed by the 2nd and 3rd acts of the mind using these universal concepts in acts of reasoning. This is the basis of logic and argumentation.
Nominalism denies the existence of universal concepts by which we know real essences. Nominalism believes particular things have no essential form in them. They are just collections of things we assign names to. The growth of nominalist philosophical and therefore theological views led to a denial of middle of the road epistemology, moderate realism. This resulted in the widespread denial of realist metaphysics. Realist metaphysics asserts that change is real in the world, that there are such things as potentiality and actuality of things that can reach natural potential in acts according to their teleological potential . Actuality is the act of existence of potential powers in the nature of a thing. In humans this includes the physical, mental and spiritual growth of humans. The actualization of human nature results in a higher level of goodness, beauty and truth present in human beings. Metaphysical realities are transcendental qualities of a thing such as goodness, beauty, truth and result from the four cause of things (final, formal, efficient and effective causes).
Voluntarism rose when the role of the intellect in human decision making was lowered by nominalist beliefs and rejection of realist metaphysics leaving the will to be being concieved as the higher power. One of the most extreme examples of this is Nietzche’s will to power, which was an important principle of his approach to governing the world.
In these days, there is a humanism which has become a religion of humanity. It demands a false moralism believing there is nothing higher than material processes in the potentiality of a human being. This humanism denials the existence of final and formal causes in material things. It denies that man has a real human nature and essence that has teleology. It denies that agents act toward their natural ends. It says humans have no nature or natural ends and purpose. This leaves the intellect as a severely limited power unable to understand and recognize the four causes in nature itself. This is a crisis in natural philosophy and a limitation of science to only empirically based knowledge, which is tentative itself. It has led to a scientism that limits the range of true science, but that is another subject even thouigh it is related to the subject here.
If like nominalism, we are to believe there is no real essence in things, then this would lead to the belief that humans are just animals. In this idea, the human animals are only groups of particulars having different characteristics. Some are more physically beautiful, more intelligent, stronger, etc. and thus of more worth in a utilitarian sense. The dignity of the human person has its source in our real essence and nature which has both a soul and body. It is both material and spiritual in its potentiality of powers. Our intellect has spiritual powers to know and understand real universal concepts and truths. There is truth in logical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of finality and the four causes of things. The existence of real essences is the source of human equality. The soul is the form of our body. We are in the soul, not the other way around. If we don’t understand our real common essences as the basis for human nature, we end up with a philosophy of human inequality.
The social contract of John Locke is not enough to ensure our equal human dignity. The social contract theory is a false human construct subject because it has no basis in human nature and is subject to the views of those in power including governments and dictators. Instead our human dignity and equality is based in our human nature, an existing reality with teleological principles that apply.
Thus in modern times, we are left with a voluntaristic approach to philosophy, a relativistic approach to epistemology and the denial of metaphysical realities found in objective goodness, beauty and truth. This trend has continued into modern age philosophy and theology resulting in many philosophical and theological errors passed on into our times causing a rise of atheistic humanism and a decline in morals and wisdom about human nature in cultures throughout much of the world. Relativism and voluntarism have increased like a pendulum swinging to an extreme. Let us hope for a revival of moderate realism in our time.
I have added an essay on Aristotle’s search for the causes of being. Aristotle conducted a scientific search for the cause(s) of being. He ifdentified four main causes of material beings: final (the extrinsic purpose), formal (the internal form), efficient (the extrinsic agent that actualizes the possibility of the thing – if the thing could realize itself it would never remain a possibility) and material causes (the intrinsic passive, determinable principle, the principle of limitation without which the form could not be realized. The breakthrough key to Aristotle’s search was one of the modes of being called substance, which is an all beings that exist in their own right (ex. man) as opposed to depending on a substance for their being (man’s color is an accidental mode of being).
I posted a new essay on the question “Is Society Composed of Individuals or Persons” in the context of the nominalist philosopher John Locke’s influence in the Founding Documents of the US and the US legal system. Locke’s influence results in an individualistic view of rights in the US without a corresponding balance of duties related to these rights and a decline in the influence of natural law thinking in decisions on rights in the courts and legislatation. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon’s book Rights Talk is referenced extensively in the essay, especially regarding John Locke’s influence and the history of the understanding of rights in the US.
A lecture on the question “Is the moderate realism of Aquinas a better approach to understanding the world around us than Ockham’s nominalism?” is now posted under the lecture tab. It includes the audio, text for each slide in the Powerpoint and the Powerpoint itself. I hope you enjoy it and I eagerly look forward to any comments and discusion you may have on the lecture. Just click on the lecture menu option at the top right of the page for instructions and the links to the lecture.
The specific question to be considered over the next few months is: “Is the moderate epistemological realism of Aquinas a better approach to understanding the world around us than Ockham’s nominalism?”. I will be preparing a lecture on this topic that I will post as a Powerpoint, WMV file recording and a transcript of the lecture. Your comments and suggestions are invited and will be much appreciated.