Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some thoughts on modernity and contemplation

The following just had to come out today. It is sketchy in many ways and involves a great many unexplained claims, each of which is worthy of its own lengthy exploration. But I had to get these thoughts out, as they’ve been stirring around in my head, unrecorded, for far too long:

The modern mind is too often simply incapable of understanding central claims of pre-modern philosophy. This inability is not due merely to distance in time but to disease of modernity, whose worst symptom, rationalism, has plagued us since modernity’s first victim, Descartes.

The rationalism of Descartes was built on two key principles:

(1)All that matters is what man can know
(2)Man can know what he knows through discursive reason

The rest of modernity is nothing but a series of failed attempts at replacing (2) with different standards of knowledge, ultimately resulting in the rejection of both (1) and (2). Nietzsche was smart enough to see the truth about modernity: that if we begin with man there is no knowledge to be had and there is no reason to think that what man knows matters anyway. The ultimate conclusion of modernity in Nietzsche looked something more like this:

(1)Nothing matters, least of all this silly thing we call “truth”
(2)Man knows nothing anyway

But the premoderns knew better than to begin with man and his reason. They knew that the distinctive faculty of man was the vision of his soul. This, of course, is connected to the discursive faculty, but knowing, seeing reality as it is, is the highest goal of man. And this is because reality is greater than man. The value of truth for the pre-modern was never built on pretentious delusions about the greatness of man, but on a submission to Being. For the premodern, access to reality, as Josef Pieper often remarks, is accepted as sort of gift. The modern, in seeking knowledge, seeks an internal subjective state of mind. The premodern, in seeking knowledge, seeks to bring his soul into contact with reality. It ought not surprise us, then, that modernity has spiraled into subjectivism.

This, of course, was the insight of Plato’s Theatetus. In this dialogue Socrates tries to find out what knowledge is. The definition that has received the greatest attention is the failed one: knowledge is justified true belief. The question becomes simple:

True belief plus x = knowledge ; what is x?

This attempted definition is proto-modern. It identifies knowledge with a subjective state plus some rational account. It should not surprise us that Socrates could not find any such satisfactory account, nor should it surprise us that further innovations in the matter in our own time have only made finding such an account seem even more unlikely. The truth is that this way of thinking about knowledge was doomed to fail all along.

The failure begins at 187a. Socrates and Theaetetus have just agreed that knowledge involves “the activity of the soul when it is busy by itself about the things which are.” Theaetetus equates this busyness with judgment. And here is the mistake. He takes the activity of the soul in itself to be primary rather than the fact that its activity is oriented at “the things which are.” Socrates goes along with him, and they explore this avenue, ultimately deciding that right judgment alone (true belief) isn’t enough, but one must add some account. But an account that really works to explain knowledge simply can’t be found.

Plato may well have been aware of this mistake. When Theaetetus suggests that it is judgment with which they are concerned, Socrates asks him to “wipe out all that we have said hitherto” (187b). I cannot help but suspect that this is an intentional way of masking the real insight (that knowledge is activity of the soul oriented at Being) in order to show the foolishness of a misunderstanding (the notion that knowledge is some sort of justified true belief). Whether Plato knew it or not, however, in the Theaetetus there lies the answer to the question he asks. Knowledge is not a certain kind of subjective state justified by a rational account. It is an objective relation of the soul to reality.

Etienne Gilson has perhaps stated this premodern insight best:

Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful. For all that which is, down to the humblest form of existence, exhibits the inseparable privileges of being, which are truth, goodness, beauty.

The modern failure to understand this dooms us to misinterpret the premodern claim that the good life for man is one of contemplation. We think this means it is a life of reason, thinking, and so on. Our picture of the contemplative life is of an academic sophist. But this a completely misguided way of understanding what the ancients meant when they said that the good life is one of contemplation. As Josef Pieper rightly says, "to contemplate means first of all to see and not to think!... Contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance." Contemplation is a loving acceptance of the world, an attitude of objectivity, an embrace of reality. The humblest of men can orient himself toward reality, can be receptive to Being, though he does not know it under that name.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog this good to find another person who knows and loves Pieper, and who appreciates the wisdom of the premoderns.

    Human beings have been given the gifts of both ratio and intellectus. Modernism denies intellectus, and postmodernism denies ratio. Have you read much of St. Thomas? Perhaps part of the reason he is a saint is because he refused the "either/or" of worldly wisdom (modernism and postmodernism) and insisted on the "both-and" of Christ.

    I look forward to dropping by again sometime. Meanwhile, I invite you to visit my blog, "Luke 10:27." Here's a post you might be interested in: "Redefining Postmodernism and the Truth of All Things."

    Meanwhile, best wishes in your studies. I left Notre Dame with an MA in philosophy and can well appreciate your labors!

  2. I too am glad to know there are others in the world who know and love Pieper’s work!

    Your diagnosis of the problems of modernity and postmodernity in terms of denial of intellectus and then ratio is spot on. I’d add that postmodernity is the necessary conclusion of modernity. Once intellectus is denied, it is only a matter of time before we do away with ratio, for our ability to reason discursively is only of any value if the things about which we reason have something to do with reality.

    Your blog looks like good stuff. In the post you linked to here, I appreciate the focus on the truth of all things, one of my favorite emphases of Pieper's.

    By the way, if the conflict between premodernity and modernity/postmodernity interests you, I highly recommend you check out Pure: Philosophy, Modernity, and the One by Mark Anderson. It takes an interesting, if a bit misguided, Platonic approach to the question.