2006


As the semester draws to a close, it seems appropriate to talk about endings. What is an ending, and what does it imply about that which it brings to a close? The mere passage of time does not imply endings: In a constantly changing flux there would be no endings. It might seem that a repetition of common elements would mark out beginnings and endings, but this does not seem to be true either: In an endless series of abababababab’s, extending indefinitely in either direction, would each ‘b’ be a beginning or an ending?

An ending marks out the existence of an event as having an integrity or wholeness separate from others. It marks out a portion of time as a separate entity. What marks out an event, with a beginning and ending, from the undifferentiated flux of becomings? A happening, or event, is the integrated effect of the agency of some entity. When objects act in a coherent and organized way, they sweep out the coherent and organized swatches of time we call events.

When Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, attempted to answer the most fundamental question “What is being?”, he found the answer to lie in substance, the subject of our propositions, the thing to which we attribute properties, the nature or agency that is the internal principle of change within each being. We know a substance and its nature by what it does, by the endings that it makes. The Greek term for end is telos. Aristotle found being to be inherently teleological or purposive: Things exist to create ends, and they are known by the ends that they make.

When we, as substances, aiming at ends, impose our power or agency on the flow of things, the events we create are our actions. In doing so we bring new endings into being. Our lives are full of the endings that result from other natures: the setting of suns, the passing of seasons, the ending of administrative units of academic institutions. The meaning of these depends on how we integrate them into our own attempts to carve up time, our own actions and endings. As we live we attempt to carve out the passage of moments into intelligible units that express the natures we find within ourselves in the course of acting. To live is to create endings. How we live depends on how we integrate the endings that we create with those we encounter from other natures. The semester, like all things, draws to a close. Will we make an end of it, or will it be an ending imposed upon us?

Aristotle was a substance metaphysician, one who held that the being of things, their substance, is what determines their actions, their telos, their endings. A process metaphysician takes events as more fundamental than substance. They would think that the endings define the substance, rather than the substance defining the end, or telos. Does the man make the ending, or does how we end things determine who we are?

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Susan Gabriel is the seventh profile in the series.

In this interview, Professor Gabriel talks about her interest in Franz Brentano and about the importance of Human Dignity in Ethical Theory.

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Lecture sponsored by the Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good.

November 28, 2006
Professor Gavin Colvert
Assumption College

Back to Nature: Aquinas and Ethical Naturalism

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When we sit down to give thanks this Thursday, what is it exactly that we will be doing? What is it to give thanks, and, in particular, what is it to give thanks for our lives or the world in general?

It may seem obvious that it is the acknowledgement of a debt and an expression of appreciation, but just a little reflection reveals this to be inadequate: When I sit down to sign papers at a loan closing, I am acknowledging a debt, but I may not be thankful. When I come upon a tasty patch of blueberries and mutter “Mnn . . . that’s good, ” I may not be thankful.

It may be easiest to see what else is involved by looking at cases where we are not willing to express thanks. We are not thankful unless we believe that what we receive comes from an agent and from some intention or purpose of that agent. (The American philosopher, and atheist, Daniel Dennett, upon recovering from a heart attack, wrote an essay expressing his unwillingness to thank God and his willingness to thank all the good people whose actions he benefited from.) Thanking entails our belief in an agent and our belief in its good intentions. (Indeed, much of the mechanical thanking that we do in the course of daily life is nothing but a polite way of acknowledging the personhood of the people that provide us services, that they are ends and not merely means.)

We might also not be thankful if we do not believe what we receive to be good, or if we suspect that the giver does not believe it to be good, or if we are not hopeful of its continued goodness. We would not be thankful if we suspected that a gift would go bad or eventually destroy us, no matter how sweet it may seem now.

More subtle, however, are the other reasons we have for refusing to be thankful. People sometimes refuse to be thankful if they hate the person who is giving, if they feel uncomfortable setting themselves in a relationship of dependence, or even if they simply dislike the intimacy or openness involved in allowing ourselves to accept an act of kindness. Most of us would be uncomfortable accepting a major gift from a stranger, because of the very necessity of being thankful and the intimacy it implies. We might also refuse an act of kindness because we feel unworthy of it, because we suspect its motives, or because we cannot bring ourselves to accept that which does not come from ourselves, what is not dependent just on our own will. Sometimes the most difficult thing for us to do is to allow ourselves to be open to goods that are not of our own making. Thankfulness implies setting ourselves and our wills in a relationship of openness or receptiveness towards the author of what we receive, as well as the intention to communicate this openness to the object of our thanks.

Gratitude recognizes that the good we receive flows from the intentionality of an agent, hopes about the continued goodness of the gift, opens the will to the acceptance of goods not of our own making, and intends to show all this in a gesture of friendship or love. What is it, then, to be thankful for life or the world in general? It is to be able to recognize our lives and the world we inhabit as good, to feel it and ourselves as the expression of a living purpose, to set our wills into a relationship of openness to what our lives in this world may bring. It is to establish our footing in the world as one based upon faith in its purposiveness, hope in its goodness, and active love expressed within the unrolling of each of its instants. If, when we sit down to eat this Thursday, as we make up our list of things that we are thankful for, we can also feel thankful for our very lives and existence in this world, then there is one more thing we should add to this list. We should also be thankful that we find within ourselves the ability to give thanks.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Fr. John Fortin OSB is the sixth profile in the series.

In this interview, Fr. John talks about the continuing relevance of Medieval Philosophy today, the Anselm Institute, and how the college has changed since he enrolled here in 1967.

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Bready Lecture

November 14, 2006
Professor Montague Brown
Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good.

The Role of Natural Law in a World of Religious and Political Diversity

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In the essay An Absurd Reasoning, Camus defines the sense of absurdity that applies to the human condition by specifying that it is not in the world alone or in human beings alone, but in the relationship between them. Human beings have a “nostalgia for order,” an expectation of meaningful pattern, that is inevitably frustrated by the actual messy condition of the world. This category of the absurd becomes for Camus a codeword for all that is disordered and evil that human beings must confront.

Camus had a powerful literary skill for evoking the awareness of the absurd. But if all that he could do was to describe alienation and frustration we might consider him merely a skillful whiner. You might think about contemporaries who articulate this “absurdity” in film or music. Do they have any proposals about the way out? Despite his reticence to use the term, Camus offers a path of hope. Consider how this is set out in slightly different ways in his early and later works.

The early stage: How can I confront the absurd and be honest? How can I, as an individual, maintain my integrity and not give in to the temptation to ignore the absurd or pretend it is not real by escaping into a transcendent standpoint that rescues me from it? The central question is suicide. If life has no plan or values written into it, is it worth the effort to continue to live? Camus responds that (a) If I commit physical suicide I give in to the absurd and surrender my existence. And (b) If I commit philosophical suicide I stop paying attention to the reasoned evidence. I execute my mental self by a leap to an absolute. Camus’ answer is to live, to live guided by three virtues: revolt, freedom and passion. It is the prideful, narrow happiness of the defiance exhibited by Sisyphus.

The later stage: What happens when the individual who wishes to take a stand against the absurd realizes that he or she is not alone? How shall I act toward others around me? If there are no absolutes that I can trust, is it permissible to dominate and use those others who may be less observant, or unsuspecting that their “rules” are not accepted by everyone? The central question is murder – is there any basis for constraint against this? Once again his skill as a writer makes the question come alive. But, he argues, we are not alone. I rebel, therefore WE exist. The very capacities of intellect and self-directing choice which mark us as having human dignity lead us to notice, if we are consistent at all, that our hopes and dreams are not the only ones that count. We cannot pretend that our metaphysical identity as a person is achieved in isolation, or can be sustained in isolation. Instead, there is an essential solidarity against the forces of the irrational and the absurd. It is demanding, and often inconvenient to our selfish inclinations, to remember this. But the realization that we are not alone is the path to our hope. One powerful symbol of this in his writings is the character of Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

Finally, if the path away from bitterness and isolation is one of a “realization” then there is a special role for creativity. The challenge is to expand our imagination. To not settle for what is merely routine or comfortable. To celebrate what is different among us, to reach out to one another in precisely the way that Clamence in Camus’s The Fall fails to do when he passes the suicidal woman on the bridge. Camus always resisted the claim that humans could not succeed at this unless they were guided by a supernatural grace. But he also knew the difference such a grace would make. What would it be like if we gave up our usual defensive positions of holding to comfortable traditions, and we started to pay attention to the actual events and people around us? In The Rebel Camus offers us a challenge. It sounds like too unambitious a move to some, but it is, in fact, not so easy to accomplish. Can we live so that at least we do not contribute to the absurd? Can we live without doing harm?

(November 7 was the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus)

The Cause of the Moral Law

Our experience of moral obligation makes sense only on the supposition that the moral law emanates from a transcendent source.

The moral law has a cause. It is not self-explanatory. Indeed, insofar as it conflicts with my own self-interest, even at times with my own survival, it is a very odd thing indeed. It cries out for some explanation. Where does it come from?

If the moral law has a cause, that cause must be either natural or supernatural. It either is located entirely in the physical, sensible realm, or it in some way transcends the physical, sensible realm.

If the cause of the moral law is natural, then that cause must be either biological instinct or human custom. E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse opt for biological instinct, asserting that “ethics…is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Ruth Benedict opts for human custom, asserting that “morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.”

Now if the cause of the moral law is either biological instinct or human custom, then the moral law does not override instinct and custom. The moral law can have no more authority than the forces that shape it.

However, the moral law does override instinct and custom. The instinct of self-preservation dictated that Socrates participate in the unjust arrest and murder of Leon of Salamis, but, as Socrates correctly saw, the moral law overrides instinct. Custom condoned slavery in the antebellum south, but the moral law condemns slavery unequivocally. If Wilson and Ruse were right, then Socrates was a fool, for only a fool would risk his life in order slightly to enhance the odds of his genes surviving. If Benedict were right, then Socrates was also a fool, for only a fool would risk his life for a mere variable custom. But Socrates was no fool. He was a hero.

It follows that the cause of the moral law is supernatural; the moral law somehow emanates from a source that transcends the physical, sensible realm.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Joseph Spoerl is the fifth profile in the series.

In this interview, Prof. Spoerl talks about how he got into philosophy, some of his work in applied ethics, as well as his recent research on Islam and its history.

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Philosophy Department Colloquium PODCAST

October 26, 2006
John Cleary
Boston College

Poetry and Paideia in Plato’s Republic

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