“The scholastic philosophers often argued like forensic lawyers, but beneath the surface of disputatious univocity, there is more at work”

Kant’s critique of the traditional proofs [for the existence of God] has been taken as definitive, but is this so? Not quite. As formulated in the ethos of modernity, it conceives of nature in terms of Newtonian mechanism, where at most we might make a plausible inference from the machine to the machine maker. In his Third Critique Kant moves in a somewhat different direction to rethink nature in qualified teleological terms. But as I said, the ethos of his thought lies quite far from Anselm, far also from the ethos of Aquinas. I will confine myself to one major point. Nature here is not a machine. The scholastic philosophers often argued like forensic lawyers, but beneath the surface of disputatious univocity, there is more at work. Aquinas’s attunement to the being of the world is redolent, if hesitantly named so, of the glory of creation. The world is a creation, and communicates the glorious, albeit initially ambiguous, signs of the creator. His third way, the way from possible being, later called the proof from contingency, hangs on the fact that the world is a happening that carries no self-explanation. It is, but it might possibly not be; there is no inherent necessity that it must be. It is a happening that happens to be, but the happening as happening points to being beyond contingency that is the source or ground of happening. This he names as God.

I would suggest that if this way has any power, it is not just as a logical argument, but only insofar as it presupposes deep openness to the ontological enigma of the “that it is” of beings. This is the elemental wonder of metaphysical astonishment: astonishment at the sheer being there of the world, its givenness as given into being, not the “what” of beings, but “the that of being at all.” This is at the edge of determinate science and more akin to religious reverence or aesthetic appreciation. Perhaps it is even a  kind of unknowing love. There is a taste of the intimate universal in it. What can we say about Aquinas the theorist? His theories might seem as thin as the arguments of forensic lawyers if we lack finesse for the living concern at stake, but this concern has to do with secret loves. Pascal suggests something like this: when we are reflecting on the arguments we might be intellectually engaged, but a few minutes later they are out of mind and we forget them. But this is also to forget the love that remains shy in the arguments.

And are not the proofs, or better “ways,” sourced in a variety of different forms of metaphysical astonishment or perplexity? These sources are as much intimate to us, as intimating something universal. The argument from design: does it not grow out of metaphysical astonishment at the aesthetic marvel of the happening of the world? Remarks in Kant’s Critique of Judgment border on this, but in either an aesthetic or a moral way, not in a more robustly religious way. Or consider the anomalous excess of human transcending. We are self-surpassing beings: but is this an excess overreaching into emptiness or into something other? Nietzsche will claim we are creatively exceeding ourselves—to ourselves. Is this excess enough for us—or for what exceeds us? Consider how Kant tried to canonize our moral being: is not this seeded in the great wonder of our sense of unconditional good? All of this suggests to me what I would call hyperboles of being: happenings in finitude excessive to complete finite determination, beyond objectification and subjectification; and yet about which we must think as philosophers, both as intimate and as intimating something universal; and in whose excess our unknowing love of being—and perhaps God—already blindly moves.

William Desmond

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7 Responses to “The scholastic philosophers often argued like forensic lawyers, but beneath the surface of disputatious univocity, there is more at work”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Eclectic Orthodoxy readers know that I am very sympathetic to Desmond’s approach to proofs for God. Compare these articles that I wrote two years ago: “Can Reason Prove the Existence of God?” and “Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity.”


  2. Robert Fortuin says:


    From whence stems the impulse to discount metaphysics, this bias against philosophy and religious thinking? Is it in any way possible that modernity is justified in doing so? Is modernity’s critique of metaphysics wholly without merit?


    • brian says:

      When metaphysics is reduced to “onto-theology” or the dregs of scholasticism or fascile Enlightenment, it is open to critique. But metaphysics proper is not touched by all that; in that respect, I judge the corrosive modern dismissal “wholly without merit.”


  3. brian says:

    A million volleys shot back-and-forth in debate become futile exercises, often nothing more than the sophist’s contentment to secure “verbal victory.” The “love that remains shy in the arguments” that can only be approached with “reverent finesse” is what inevitably gets lost in translation.

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    • Brian, I didn’t see your comments here before I posted mine. Have you interacted at all with Bergson? If so are the similarities that I am seeing between him and Desmond warranted? I’d be curious to hear your perspective.


      • brian says:


        I have not read Bergson in many years. He played a big role in the life of Maritain. Bergson is in some ways an intoxicating thinker, though I don’t believe he sufficiently appreciates the nature of divine transcendence or agapeic giving. Bergson was influential on “high modernism” in the 1920s an 30s. As I think you note below, Bergson counters dead Newtonian mechanism with a phenomenology that calls forth a kind of Romantic vitalism. There is certainly an appreciation for the dynamism of relation and Bergson was sensitive to the philosophical value of mystical experience, though as Maritain came to see, he too closely identifies being with time.


  4. Thanks Fr. Kimel. Like I have noted elsewhere, the correlations between what I am reading here and the metaphysic approach of Henri Bergson are uncanny. He speaks of the movement into the metahysical realities (if I am representing him correctly) through and act of sympathy as well as imagination. In his essay An Introduction to Metaphysics he uses an opening example of how one ‘knows’ a hero in a work of fiction. The abstractions of observation remain relative, where we might know certain traits of the character from the outside. However, by sympathetically and imaginatively placing ourselves in the hero, we know him from an entirely different vantage point, we would be inside the character. It seems to me that this is the distinction of all relative knowledge-about versus the more immediate, existential knowledge-of.

    I don’t think I necessarily agree with Bergson in every detail, but his outline does sketch out something more akin to the way knowledge is presented to us in Scripture – it is a matter of intercourse and participation of like with unlike that produces genuine understanding. Some of the scholastic excess that Kant reacts against probably has its antecedent in an undue faith in the symbolic abstractions of logic (and the Newtonian model). This is not to say logic and abstract reasoning are useless or uninformative – they might very well hone our sympathetic imagination, and help rule out those intuitions that have no rational basis as we engage in metaphysics.

    Here’s the link to Bergson’s famous essay : An Introduction to Metaphysics


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