Daily Archives: March 10, 2013

Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional

Some have suggested that human will is compelled to choose what it does, though not coerced. For not all compulsion is violent, only external compulsion: the movements of nature are compelled but not violent, since violence — originating outside — is incompatible with both the natural and the willed — both of which originate inside. The suggestion, however, is heretical since it destroys the notion of human action as deserving or undeserving: somebody so compelled to act that he can’t avoid it doesn’t seem to be doing anything deserving or undeserving. The opinion is also philosophically anarchic, not only opposed to the faith but destroying the foundations of ethics. For if we are not in any way free to will but compelled, everything that makes up ethics vanishes: pondering action, exhorting, commanding, punishing, praising, condemning. Opinions like these, which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy, are called anarchic: the opinion that nothing changes, for example, which does away with natural philosophy. People are led to embrace them, Aristotle says, partly by brinkmanship and partly by sophistical reasoning to which they can’t find the answers.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (McDermott translation)

Finding the term philosophically anarchic a little odd, I looked up the original and found that Prof. McDermott has taken certain liberties with the text (something I had suspected anyway, since his Aquinas is so readable!). In the original Latin, the bolded clause reads as follows: Huiusmodi autem opiniones quae destruunt principia alicuius partis philosophiae, dicuntur positiones extraneae. — so it appears that Aquinas is not calling such opinions anarchic but rather foreign to philosophy, a designation which makes much more sense. Such opinions, regardless of whether or not they can be proven false, simply have no place in philosophy.

(I also looked up the passage from Metaphysics Aquinas cites here, just in case positiones extraneae should turn out to be a translation of a Greek term more properly translated as anarchic. But Aristotle merely attempts to explain why some people might deny the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t create and define a category of anarchic/foreign opinions as Aquinas does, or at least not in the cited passage.)

Aquinas’s concept of opinions which are foreign to philosophy is comparable to my concept of philosophically dysfunctional opinions. (See my use of that term here and here.) But Aquinas’s definition — opinions “which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy” — manifests a typically scholastic let’s-classify-everything approach which I find less than helpful. I prefer to define a philosophically dysfunctional opinion as one that undermines, not some particular branch of philosophy (perhaps some branches, such as astrology, deserve to be undermined?) but philosophy itself — thought itself, in fact.

The end purpose of all thought is to serve as a guide to action. This purpose can be frustrated, and thought rendered dysfunctional, in several different ways, but — to attempt to get into the scholastic spirit a bit — philosophical dysfunctions can be classified under three main heads:

  1. The denial of ends. If nothing is good or bad, or if no particular thing matters more than any other particular thing, then the idea of a “guide to action” makes no sense. A guide cannot function without a destination.
  2. The denial of means. If there is no causation, or if causal relations cannot be known and reasoned about, there can similarly be no guidance. In addition to knowing the destination, we need to know which roads lead to it and which do not.
  3. The denial of agency itself. Obviously if there is no action — only the passive propagation of mechanistic cause-and-effect — then there is nothing to guide.
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